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Quebec writing retreat forces students to ‘shut up and write’

Held at a convent north of Montreal, students spent hours writing in monastic silence.

BY MARIE LAMBERT-CHAN | FEB 02 2016
Participants in the writing retreat spent three days last December at a convent in Val-Morin, Quebec. Photo: Blitz Paradisio
Participants in the writing retreat spent three days last December at a convent in Val-Morin, Quebec. Photo: Blitz Paradisio

As any graduate student can tell you, you need to be a paragon of discipline to write a thesis or dissertation. Amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it can be hard to force yourself to forget about Facebook and household tasks, and to write every day, alone in front of the computer.

The solution? A writing retreat, a concept popularized in the U.S. under the name Shut Up and Write!, which has yet to make inroads in Canada. But if an experiment spearheaded by two doctoral students, Émilie Tremblay-Wragg and Sara Mathieu-Chartier, is any indication, it is not for lack of interest. In a matter of a few months, they organized and hosted two retreats: an inaugural one last June and the second in December, when 40 spots were snapped up within days. They’ve called their initiative Thèsez-vous?, a play on the French terms for “thesis” and “shut up.”

“The demand was so great each time that we had to set up a waiting list,” says Ms. Tremblay-Wragg, a doctoral student in education at Université du Québec à Montréal, who is still pleasantly surprised by the initiative’s popularity.

“It created a buzz, with the word being passed around classrooms and on social networks,” affirms Marie-France Goyer, a doctoral student in sexology at UQAM, who participated in both events. “I couldn’t wait for the second retreat,” she adds. “There was no way I was going to miss the registration deadline. When I reserved my spot, I was as excited as if I had snagged a pair of tickets to a Backstreet Boys concert!”

How do you explain the event’s huge success? First, there’s the formula: students spend three days in an isolated setting. The December edition, for example, took place at a convent in Val-Morin, a 90-minute drive north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains. They followed a strict schedule – alternating among writing sessions, fitness breaks, rest periods and various workshops, including one on how to stop procrastinating. The participants spend a total of 17 hours writing “in monastic silence,” as noted by Sara Mathieu-Chartier, a doctoral student in psychoeduation at Université de Montréal.

“At the first retreat, I was worried that it would turn into more of a vacation camp. But on the contrary, I’ve never been so productive,” recalls Marie-Eve Gadbois, a doctoral student in education at UQAM. “It’s great to work in such a structured environment, where the only thing you have to think about is your research topic. During the second retreat, I wrote for four hours at a time, with only a short five-minute break. I could never have done that at home.”

Lyanna Desprès, a doctoral student in sexology at UQAM, found the schedule so beneficial that she, along with Marie-France Goyer, stuck to it all summer after the first retreat. “We wrote our entire theses the same way,” says Ms. Desprès, who was working on a master’s degree at the time.

According to Ms. Desprès, part of the retreat’s power lies in the communal aspect. “Writing is a very lonely pursuit, she confides. With Thèsez-vous?, we’re among peers and we understand one another. It makes for a very stimulating work environment.”

“There’s a wonderful solidarity that develops among the participants,” says Ms. Mathieu-Chartier, “so much so that it creates an atmosphere where no one dares talk or even log onto Facebook.” “We are inspired and motivated by each other,” adds Ms. Goyer.

To better deal with the sudden popularity of Thèsez-vous?, the organizers founded Blitz Paradisio, a non-profit organization, and hired two consultants. The small company has several projects in the works. “Professors interested in the concept have requested their own retreat, which we plan to hold in February 2016. We would also like to organize mini-urban retreats in Montreal,” notes Ms. Tremblay-Wragg.

The third writing retreat is already on track for March 15 to 17, again at the Val-Morin convent. It will cost $200, which may be reimbursed by student associations or research centres. For those on a limited budget, the Érudit consortium offers a bursary. The organizers, who also did all the cooking for the participants during both retreats, are currently seeking other partners to fund bursaries, as well as to provide catering services.

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  1. Eliz / February 3, 2016 at 14:06

    Great article. Writing Retreats for grad students are popping up at a few Canadian universities – Queen’s University in Kingston does Dissertation Boot Camp and Dissertation On The Lake events.