Writing With Others

By Michelle Francl (Department of Chemistry, Bryn Mawr College) and Maria Gallardo-Williams (Department of Chemistry and OFE, NC State University)

Writing is expected from academics at all career stages. We are supposed to write papers, reports, articles for the general public, books, lab manuals, SOPs, you name it. So, we find the time, in between doing a million other things, and we write. Sometimes finding that time to write is the hardest part. We know what we want to say, we just struggle to find a moment to capture it in black and white. And so, many academics don’t publish enough and don’t share enough.

Sometimes you stumble onto something that works. A writing retreat can be a blessing, as long as you can leave other pressing needs behind. But how often can we take off to attend a writing retreat? And what are the magical ingredients of that writing retreat that make it so appealing?

It used to be that we would get to go away, have unlimited coffee and snacks, and a nice quiet environment, but COVID did away with that. So, in reinventing the writing retreat it became clear that having accountability and a sense of companionship might even be more important than the unlimited coffee. What if we take that element and the limited time that we have and just share writing time with a friend?

I have written successfully with many friends and colleagues, but my most productive and longest writing partnership has been with Michelle Francl, a fellow chemist from Bryn Mawr. Michelle and I met on Twitter and were initially part of a larger online writing group. With time, other members of the group stopped coming, but the two of us stuck with it. Michelle and I have never met in person, and have never written a piece together (this is our first!), but have supported each other’s writing from a distance and contributed to each other’s success.

I asked Michelle to help me articulate how our writing partnership works, and she did not disappoint.

This is what she had to say:

I was at the end of a sabbatical leave where I’d hoped to travel to meet with colleagues and to get away from my daily responsibilities to make more time for writing. I got one of my two wishes —I spent the fall out of my office at the college, and in my study under the eaves at home. The long stretches of time were great for making progress on various writing projects, but it was lonely and I was sometimes unmotivated to deal with the less appealing or difficult pieces of work on my desk.

I follow Maria on Twitter, and one day when she was looking for company to write I asked if I could join the party. A group of us set a time on the calendar, greeted each other on Twitter in a DM, announced our intentions and set to work. We shared a space, though not a physical one nor even a virtual one, we didn’t turn on Zoom cameras or set up a Microsoft teams meeting. This was a metaphorical space that we held open for each other, and one that was constructed with very little fuss.

Announcing my intention for these hour-long writing sessions gave me permission to focus on my intended work without distraction. It reminded me that I was not obliged to continuously check my email for messages that needed my attention, let alone answer them. Most of all I appreciated the gentle sense of accountability these joint writing sessions gave me. It felt good to be able to say that I made some progress on a difficult project, and safe to say I didn’t do as much as I might have hoped. I felt supported in my work, knowing that I was not alone in my struggles as well as my joys.

My sabbatical is over and I’m back in the thicket of teaching and meetings and administrative work, but I still appreciate being able to give myself the gift of an hour away from these responsibilities to write in the company of friends. I might be tempted to skip my scheduled writing time to deal with a more immediate or seemingly important task, but I would never stand up a friend.