lim·i·nal adjective \ˈli-mə-nəl\
1: of or relating to a sensory threshold
2: barely perceptible
3: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition : in-between, transitional
In the liminal state between life and death
~ Merriam Webster Dictionary
During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.
Beautiful writing is not something that we automatically associate with a PhD thesis, which is more often than not seen as dry, and boring, technical writing. A means to an end. So when a PhD writing retreat begins with: “Write with the directness of a novelist, the choosiness of a poet, the rhythm of a musician, the colour of an artist”, you know it is not going to be a dry and boring week!
The retreat started with a creative overtone, in the form of a book reading by Australian writer Brian Matthews, which was carried through in a beautiful poetry reading by Rose Lucas. This creativity was encouraged in each of us when we each had to write and then share our own creative four hundred word PhD stories. Creating writing…ummm…yes...major challenge number one. We were gently nudged in that direction during our morning writing wake-up sessions, with short five-minute writing tasks such as “write about how you slept last night” and “share how you felt when you wrote/read your story out aloud”. The opportunity to find your own voice within academic writing, in an exceptionally supportive environment, is a revelation. Having to “write the perfect sentence” within a couple of minutes and then read it out aloud – well, let’s just say – for those whose know me – shock, horror. Not so much the reading out aloud part, but the perfect part. But it was done. No fuss. No pretentiousness. Breakthrough.
I thought it would be fair to say that we all learnt more through the collegiality of being in a house with a group of like-minded people than from the actual formal lessons at the retreat; but then, it has occurred to me that there was method in the madness, so to speak. The formal aspect of the retreat forced us out of the often-hermit-like-shells of our academic scholar comfort zones. The conversation that I had with my PhD – yes, read that again – I know, sounds crazy! but remember, breaking through comfort zones and being open was a key component of the week – during Lucia Nardo’s treasure-mapping spoke of letting my PhD do its work, allowing me to just document it. It has taken the pressure off me to be my PhD. Personally, this facilitated a positive change in the way that I approach my work. Breakthrough.
Solitary morning walks along the beachfront to watch the sunrise and just be. Walk-and-talk sessions with great iced coffee. The cooking teams’ challenge to cater for all manner of tastes and dietary requirements – I loved the ‘green food’ night, oh and my group’s unexpected need to use all the leftovers on the last night. Playing celebrity-head and ping-pong. The audience effect of quiet writing time alone, together – often with bottles of wine appearing, and quickly disappearing. The ever-present presence of Greg Denning – and then his wife! Watching out for wankwords. These aspects all contributed to the whole-istic nature of the week, which really appealed to me. Strangely, these were catalysts for work, not distractions or procrastination aids. Breakthrough.
I had independent conversations towards the end of the week around the idea that calling this a ‘writing retreat’ rather than a ‘writing bootcamp’ is likely to attract a certain personality type – one that we all identified with in some way. This is not to say that the retreat was full of introverts – on the contrary I think – but that we were all the kind of people who craved more. We all commented on being back to the drudgery on the forthcoming Monday, and that we hoped that the sense of achievement and capability would linger past the mundane and pressing habits of being back to real-life – and emails. I know that I had planned to ‘rage rage against the dying of the light’ (Rose Lucas – inspired) – but one week on I have come to realise that there is no need to fight against my old (procrastination) routines – the liminal space in my life created through my time at the retreat is spilling over, and new rituals and routines are already forming. Breakthrough.
PS: Thanks to Ron Adams, Rose Lucas, and Rob McCormack for facilitating the retreat. Lucia Nardo, thanks for coming to share your treasure-mapping with us. Also a big thanks to Federation University Australia for sponsoring me.