Why a scientist needs a writer’s retreat

DSC02648A retreat is not an advance. It is more introspection than extroversion. It is more remembering than discovering, at least if the discovery is external. A Zen retreat might involve a silent week of focus on breathing, on holding poses, or walking, perhaps including sitting with others also trying to discover balance. The food will be simple and spare.

A retreat involves seclusion and focus. At a writer’s retreat you may finally get past an impediment to your project. You may see the way around a dilemma. You may do more reading and thinking than writing, but your writing will benefit.

A writing retreat can serve different functions during a project. At the beginning you might define the project. What do you want to say? In the long, long middle, you might find that 50-page chunk that simply needs to be discarded. You might see more clearly how to communicate. Towards the end, a retreat might help you push through the final details. It might help you climb to that ever-receding summit.

A retreat need take no special form. It need not be at any particular place, though a place as beautiful as Double Helix Ranch is quite a find. A retreat need not be with, or without, any certain group of people. My life’s partner is with me here. I have seen family and friends regularly.

So what is a retreat if you can see people, be anywhere, and eat blueberries and brisket? The key thing is that a retreat must break the daily bonds of things you are expected to do. An effective retreat is typically far from home. You cannot go to that faculty meeting, though it might be important. You cannot be the good citizen that attends to a visiting student. You even missed journal club and lab meeting. You miss seminars and faculty sherry, the pleasurable along with the obligatory. These things may only take ten or so hours a week, but they diffuse attention, bleeding into additional time, thereby taking away focus.DSC02648

How about the demands that come in through email? Should an effective retreat have no contact with the outside world? I suppose the answer to this varies among people, but for me we have the perfect solution here at the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat. If I had no contact at all, I would worry. I would worry about my family above all. Did anything happen? Did someone need me? What frantic efforts are they making to contact me? I would also worry about my lab group. But with too much contact, I might just keep at the small tasks with deadlines that keep me from the big and innovative ones that only I know I want to do.

What compromise do we have here? My partner’s phone works, but mine, inexplicably, does not. We have internet, but it is on the porch of the other house, 65 paces away. So we can see that all is well with our corner of the world, but spend nearly all of our day apart from the wire. The buzz we hear is of the hummingbirds visiting the feeders, not the chatter of Facebook and Gmail.

We put up our hand that says stop, leave us alone, in the form of an auto-reply on email. Stop, for we are in full retreat from the fizz of demands, trying for once to get something deeper done. For breaks we take down a book on longhorns, or grasses, or even Principles of Life. We don’t browse the internet. We browse through the Xeroxed set of herbarium sheets to better learn the plants of the ranch.

But few can retreat for anything but a brief period. So the ultimate measure of a retreat is how successfully we bring what we gained here back with us home. How can we remain effective scientists, teachers, and colleagues while clasping tight our newly won retreat insights?

written at the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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