Danielle Taschereau Mamers is a researcher at McMaster University, where she studies politics and media. She has expertise in settler colonial history, decolonization, and environmental politics. Taschereau Mamers has written about bison conservation for The Conversation, and has also been published in the Journal of Narrative Politics and Settler Colonial Studies.
For the past three years, I have been writing with others — not collaboratively, but in community. As a writer and researcher, my work is often solitary. By joining together with a small group of fellow writers and scholars, our writing practices have thrived. Working in community is the single best thing I have done for my creative practice.
In the fall of 2018, I was passing days alone in my office, surrounded by stacks of books, overflowing notebooks, and half-empty coffee cups. It was far from romantic. Adrift and mostly miserable, I needed creative companionship. I reached out to other women working out of the same research centre, who were also in solitary office spaces and similarly struggling with overwhelming writing projects. Perhaps, I ventured, we could write together, at the same time and in the same space?
We started as a small group of four, meeting for two hours every Thursday morning. For the better part of a year, we soaked up the small luxury of having access to a well-lit conference room and fancy espresso machine at the centre. Each week, we assembled our laptops, reference materials, and drafts around the small table and declared our intentions to one another. Small statements of tasks that we could reasonably complete during our two-hour session. These tasks often felt trivial in the face of a book or dissertation manuscript: drafting a paragraph, summarizing an article, inputting revisions. Yet, as the year stretched on, the work we did together accumulated. Our projects inched closer to completion.
That big projects are the accumulation of smaller components is hardly a revelation. The magic of our writing group is the articulation and celebration of those minor tasks as goals in and of themselves. Speaking aloud to one another what we would do and then checking in at the end of our two-hour work session, we were not just writing. We were also giving narrative accounts of how our writing processes unfolded, and learning from one another the many ways in which writing can unfold.
Working in these focused blocks helped me reckon with one of my biggest challenges: my sense of just how long writing takes. As a graduate student, I was forever dispirited by the bold lists of projects and deadlines I would set out for myself. Each day there would be much left undone, endlessly pushed forward to the next day. From week to week, semester to semester, my sense of what I wanted to accomplish was increasingly distant from what I was able to get done. I promised myself over and over again to work faster and more efficiently and for longer stretches.
In writing and other creative work, the line between promising to work harder and haranguing oneself for not being enough is very fine. Over these years of not feeling smart enough, fast enough, or accomplished enough, it never occurred to me that my expectations were the problem. Writing in community, I’ve witnessed how common struggles with time and expectations are, while also coming to understand how different writers approach these issues. Together, we have found ways to be enough.
By working in community with other writers, I saw how others worked. Through our meetings, I listened to their descriptions of trouble with a particular paragraph or attempts to braid different narratives together or approaches to thorny peer-reviews. But alongside hearing different approaches to the writing process, I also came to better understand just how incrementally a manuscript comes together. More importantly, I saw that it wasn’t just me that wasn’t enough, but that the process is long for everyone. Settling into our consistent two-hour blocks, I set more modest goals and saw them through. While working in community hasn’t made me smarter or more efficient, it has taught me what I can do in two hours. Most importantly, our group has showed me how to consistently show up for modest writing goals.
The onset of the pandemic coincided with moves across the country and new jobs. Our group moved online like the rest of the world. In a period that has brought isolation and distraction from creative practice for many, we have grown. An accumulation of modest goals and their celebration that began on Thursday mornings in a sunny conference room now unfolds two afternoons a week over zoom.
When I hear writers and researchers express frustration over stalled projects or the loneliness of our vocation, I always suggest finding a writing group. Or making one. Finding just one other person makes a group. Drawing from the three years that our group has been writing together, I have four suggestions for building a writing community:
Be consistent. Set up a time and place where you will come together. We started with weekly morning meetings in a physical location that was comfortable and already a part of our working lives. Consistency needs flexibility. We check in seasonally to decide our meeting schedule. When we met in person, there was a season of shifting from Thursday to Friday mornings. When we no longer had access to the research centre conference room (and the pandemic meant we could no longer meet in person), we moved online and increased the frequency of our meetings. But as an online group, we are still together for two hours of co-writing where we hold space for modest goals and for celebrating their achievement.
Size matters. The size of our group is part of our success and key to being consistent. Our group has grown from four to eight over the years. It is small enough that we know each other and have come to know one another’s projects well. But it is big enough to withstand a couple of absences on a given week or season. In busy times when there have been just two members available, the consistency of community continues.
Prompt each other. After a few minutes of chatting at the start of each session, we write. Each session begins with a prompt: “In the next two hours, I will…” We finish this sentence aloud and then build on it with a few minutes of free writing. Sometimes we offer one another prompts to move the writing along. These include listing the key points we care about, writing out the things we do and do not know about a topic, or putting the feelings we have toward our work into words. Setting a timer and scribbling by hand together brings a special energy to getting started and to keeping going.
Create special sessions. Once a season, usually aligned with the beginning or end of an academic semester, our group holds longer retreats. We pick two or three days where we meet for full days and set larger, but still achievable goals. Along with focused writing sessions, we take lunch breaks together and build in brief yoga sessions to keep up morale. Whether in person or online, we conclude retreats with a celebratory happy hour.
The impact of this community practice has been profound. Between us, we have completed book manuscripts, submitted articles, begun creative writing pursuits, and made headway on stalled dissertations. By working side-by-side (and now, screen-by-screen), we have learned the productive limits of two hours. When shared, these two-hour increments expand in ways that have made us better writers, committed to our craft and to each other.