This blog is written by Tom Ritchie, who collaborated with Lewis Winks to facilitate the eDartington Writing Retreats in summer 2021. In this blog, Tom reflects on his attempts to make the Writing Retreats a nurturing and caring space, personalised to the individual attendees.
The Education Incubator is a University of Exeter initiative, designed to support a community of educators and students to inspire and innovate.
Before COVID-19, the Incubator’s annual Dartington Writing Retreat was our capstone event, traditionally held over three days in the early summer at Dartington estate. At the event, our project fellows would spend time together exploring the grounds, sampling cake and scones, and writing together in a guided space. The feedback for this event was that the location of Dartington made it special, as it provided the attendees with a space to spend time focusing on writing, networking, and being creative.
The onset of COVID-19 has meant that in 2020 and 2021, we have been unable to use the space and surroundings at Dartington to create this type of communal physical space. In 2020, we ran a version of Dartington online – eDartington – a two-day event based on the principles of Rowena Murray’s Writing Retreats.
Ultimately on reflection, the organisation of the 2020 eDartington was more reactive than we would have hoped, with the main focus being to put something on for our fellows, rather than building a truly communal, creative space. It was with this in mind that we redeveloped how the Dartington Writing Retreat would be delivered online, to ensure that it was delivered in an innovative, inclusive, and creative way.
Much of the design for this Writing Retreat came from our own online experiences of the past 17 months, along with Tom Kelley’s The Ten Faces of Innovation: Strategies for Heightening Creativity which details how different characteristics are required to foster creativity and innovation.
We focused on two faces from the Kelley’s book. These were the Stage-Setter (making the retreat a unique experience) and the Caregiver (making sure our fellows felt supported before, during, and after the retreat).
To effectively set the stage, we worked with an external facilitator at Exeter, Dr Lewis Winks, who had previously worked on two in-person Dartington events in 2018 and 2019. Using these experiences, Lewis created a Padlet for attendees to share ‘gifts’ with others in advance of the retreats. These gifts included nature photographs, poems, book recommendations, and writing playlists.
To fulfil the Caregiver role, the retreats were built around this sharing of gifts and building of a communal space, with regular breaks where attendees were encouraged to get out into nature, as a way of sharing experiences, but also emphasising self-care. To support this, we also created our own Writing Retreat welcome packs, full of recycled and recyclable items sent to attendees before each session.
For those who joined us at more than one of the Writing Retreats in May, June, and July, we updated the packs with new items to support their creativity and getting back to nature.
Our preliminary ideas of caring and nurturing were translated into the retreat through these personalised boxes, which accounted for dietary needs, attendance at previous retreats, and the theme of exploring nature that underlined at all three retreats. The feedback on the boxes was overwhelmingly positive, with many posting them on Twitter, and others borrowing this caring, personalised approach in running their own online events and retreats.
We learned a lot running this event this year, responding to the challenges caused by COVID-19. Rather than reinventing the wheel on writing retreats, we instead focused on the user experience to create a space that helped them to join and engage with the event as much as possible. As we return to in-person events, it is important that we all remember the lessons learned from moving online, and focus on creating spaces where people are brought together and feel nurtured, both within the Incubator, and beyond.