January 17, 2013

writers boot camp

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By Heather Johns

LEWISBURG, Pa. — To coax the haunting hum from a Tibetan singing bowl, you drag a mallet slowly around the bowl's edge. But a hum won't marshall the lunchtime chatter of 18 professors in the 7th Street Cafe for Bucknell University's Faculty Writers' Boot Camp, so Peg Cronin knocks her bowl's burnished hollow with enough force to fill the room with ringing.

"I really love the sound of it," said Cronin, a writing and teaching consultant at Bucknell's Writing Center. "It saves me from having to yell."

The bowl's song quiets a din that happens only a few times a day during the weeklong Writer's Boot Camp. Silence is the norm; professors are permitted to talk only during two 10-minute breaks and a 45-minute lunch period. For the rest of the day, the only sounds in the cafe are the refrigerator's hum, fingers tapping on keys and good, old-fashioned scribbling. Email and Facebook are not permitted, either.

"Boot Camp aims to help faculty writers create a space for a mostly silent community where everyone is engaged in the same kind of work," explained Deirdre O'Connor, director of the Writing Center. "Doing this requires a willingness to set oneself apart from the usual demands on our attention."

Though a January snow covers the ground outside, the cafe is a cocoon of creativity. Virginia Zimmerman, associate professor English, sits on a green velvet couch, the tools of her writing spread around her. This is her second boot camp, and she's making good progress on her children's fiction project. "Eight pages today," she said.

Faculty Writers' Boot Camp offers many gifts to its participants, but the most widely appreciated is time. "I have an easier time completing scholarly projects because I don't need huge swaths of time for that process," said Zimmerman. "But when writing fiction, it's really hard to get into the groove, then have to leave the groove for a week to grade papers, then try to restart. The unlimited time to write here is such a gift."

Though they're all working on different projects, the professors aren't going it alone. Sabrina Kirby, a writing and teaching consultant at the Writing Center, O'Connor and Cronin have each filled the role of writing coach since the boot camp's inception.

Assistant Professor of Management Cindy Guthrie brainstormed with a coach to come up with a title for her project. She began last year's boot camp with four projects in various stages of completion. A year later, three are published and one is out for second review. "I didn't finish them here, but I really moved them forward," said Guthrie. "It's great just having a dedicated block of time and supportive colleagues."

The idea for a Faculty Writers' Boot Camp was born in response to a boot camp held in June 2010 for master's thesis and treatise writers in Bucknell's education department. "As the boot camp proceeded, Associate Professor of Education Sue Ellen Henry and I witnessed the enthusiasm, engagement, camaraderie and productivity of the writers involved," said Kirby. "It occurred to us that faculty could benefit from this kind of support, as well."

Two years later, Faculty Writers' Boot Camps are held twice a year, in January and during spring break. Each session fills up within hours of being announced.

"I think Boot Camp has helped remind people that Bucknell is a community of writers," said O'Connor. "People are separated by disciplines, by subfields, but everyone here is a writer, a person who finds both satisfaction and frustration in getting words down on the page."

On the other side of the cafe, six professors chat around a coffee table, balancing bowls of soup on their laps during the lunch break. They're from different disciplines — physics and astronomy, management, women's and gender studies and religion — but united by a common purpose.

That common purpose, noted first-time boot camper Matt Amthor, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, can enrich the often lonely act of writing. "The solidarity is helpful," said Amthor. "If you find yourself wandering mentally, you see everyone else working. It encourages you to get back to being productive."

"There is a really profound nonverbal community that's created," said Cronin. "The energy of people working together and being committed to staying quiet and offline — devoting themselves to their projects, to themselves as scholars and writers, and to each other."

Contact: Division of Communications