Know Thyself: The Ultimate Lesson from a Writing Retreat

Hello again, all!

In my last post I shared about some of the tools I use for writing. I also shared a little bit about how these tools have helped me to learn more about my writing habits and also in examining why I think/feel/act the way I do when it comes to daunting task of writing. People who write about habit change or change in general talk a lot about insight – about how in order to change something you have to be aware of what is actually going on. Changing something that you don’t understand typically doesn’t yield good results (we know this from our research training, too! We’d never go off manipulating variables without understanding what we’re changing, right?)

I attended a breakout session at the Writing Retreat that was a game changer. The professor leading the session is a BOSS and gave incredible advice for building long-lasting writing habits and I picked up so many tidbits for writing improvements (shout out to Dr. Stacey Waite for sharing your genius methods!).

The overarching piece of advice I took from the session was this:
Know Yourself and Your Writing Will Improve.

Easier said than done, right? Well, actually there are a lot of ways to get to know your writing self. Here are some of the ways we can do this.

First, examine the stories or myths you tell yourself about writing.

I shared a little bit in my post on writing trackers how I have a TON of these stories about writing. As with any other situation that is anxiety-provoking, writing can provoke our inner critic (or inner asshole/IA as Jen Pastiloff says) resulting in a shit-storm of stories about ourselves and writing.

Here is a selection of some my inner narratives about writing:
1. I can only write at night.
2. I can only write when I’ve had coffee.
3. I can’t write at home.
4. I should only write when I want to (rebel tendency coming out there)
4. I can only write at coffee shops.
5. I can only write if I have more than two hours open.
6. I will catch up on writing this weekend/summer/winter break.
7. I don’t know how to write.
8. Writing is too difficult and my work will never get accepted anyway, so why try?
9. I wish I didn’t have to write.
10. I can only write when I’m inspired.
11. I will write better if I watch a little Netflix/read a few pages of this book/meditate/cook dinner/plan my week/research alternate careers first.
12. I can’t write. It’s too hard.

Wowza. And that’s just a selection of them. Once you have taken a little inventory of what your stories are around writing, I would take the next step.

Next, dig into this further using the questions below.

Take out a piece of paper (or turn your word doc orientation to landscape) and divide the paper into six columns. Then put the following short questions into each column kinda like this:

What? When? Where? Who? Why? How?

(short for:
What do you write?
When do you write best?
Where do you write best?
Who do you write best with?
Why do you write?
and How do you write best?)

Mine looked a little like this:

During this exercise I remembering thinking things like, “Oh yeah – these are all pretty accurate! I know myself pretty well!” I mean I have been fighting with my writing since day one of grad school FIVE YEARS AGO so it probably feels like I know a lot of things. But once I looked further into these statements – they really seemed more like impressions, preferences, or worse – EXCUSES.

These questions can reveal how many ways we try to talk ourselves out of writing. Probably because WRITING IS HARD.

Anyway, the professor’s next bit of advice was to take some of these “I write best when/with/at ____” statements and devise an experiment to test them. (HERE’S WHERE OUR RESEARCH TRAINING COMES IN HANDY!)

For example, I decided to experiment with one of the statements at the core of my identity as a night owl – “I write best at night, the later the better.” This writing retreat happened to be occurring for a full week starting right at 9:00am each day. So, after this talk I challenged myself (attempting to do so with an open mind) to an experiment – is it REALLY true that I can’t write in the morning? That nights are BEST?
Well, no. It wasn’t true. I was completely able to write in the morning. This experiment taught me a lot of things that worked well in the morning (I got less distracted with emails and other tasks since I knew I had the REST of the day to deal with those things; I felt less anxious throughout the day since my writing was done FIRST; and it provided me with evidence that I COULD write in the morning).

Dr. Waite’s essential tip included challenging as many of these tips to an experiment to see what ARE true statements for you. For me, I DO write best when I have at least two hours, when I can see outside (by a window or with a window in sight), when I’m the right temperature (now I bring sweaters, blankets, and extra socks to the coffee shop), and when I’m not at home.

Have you attended a writing retreat? What have you learned? How do you write best? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment, go follow my page on instagram (@thegradschoolgrind), message me on the contact page, or shoot me an email at

In the meantime, I’ll be writing away in the stacks. Keep grindin’!


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