The ViDSS Blog

Writing among monks. Field report from the Winter Writing School 2024.

We were going to be quite a crowd. At least that is what I understood when the OEBB ticket inspector asked a colleague and me why there were so many travelling to Seitenstetten on a Monday morning. Is that so? – I asked. He replied that there were at least twenty of us, all travelling to what seemed to be an unusual destination. My colleague added that we were about to attend a writing workshop at Stift Seitenstetten.

Eventually, not everyone the ticket inspector had counted made it into our group. Barely an hour after our conversation on the train, Dean, the leader and coach of this week’s winter school welcomed fourteen people. Fewer than expected, I thought. Among the participants were doctoral students in archaeology, world and art history, communication studies and English studies, two cultural and social anthropologists and one student each in music history, sociology, and political science. And, fun fact, not all of us had been on the same train. What had brought us to Seitenstetten, however, was a shared desire: We all wanted to devote time to drafting our dissertations; and we had planned to do so at the Winter Writing School that was organised by our doctoral schools.

Winter Writing School – means getting up, having breakfast, a workshop to start the day, Snack 1, Snack 2, a short closing session in the evening, dinner, a bit more chatting and then sleep. In between there is plenty of time to write in an unfamiliar environment, with new people, at a different time of the day and with freedoms that most of us are not used to in our daily lives. All meals are prepared, there’s no travelling to the office, no meetings or chance encounters, and no social obligations. The idea is not to say that social obligations, commuting or cooking cannot be fun – not at all! The idea is to show how comforting it can be to put aside for a week all the things that make our lives so exciting. We should not distract ourselves. Instead, Dean suggested that we aim to write between eight hundred and a thousand words a day. Sounds little? Well, if you keep at it, most might be able to finish their thesis in four to five months.

The writing itself took place in the Scholastikerzimmer, a seminar room with a cross vault, heavy wooden doors made from the finest craftsmanship and oak parquet flooring. A not-too-orthodox depiction of a crucified Jesus with blue hair was hanging on the wall. As we toured the monastery, we learnt that one of the monks who lived there was a lover of contemporary art. He had himself created many of the works on display and was constantly trying to bring new artists and their work to the monastery. We had brought our writing to the monastery and the monastery invited us to use it as a source of inspiration: We quickly learned that there were good reasons for more than twenty people to come and visit the monastery every Monday.

While most of us were writing, Dean would always invite one of us for a one-on-one interview. Fourteen times he discussed our writing as well as possible career paths (inside and outside academia). For me, it was an incredibly positive conversation. With room for anxieties, but also for the motivations that inspire our writing and our existence in academia in general. Without knowing what the others talked about with Dean, I dare say that most of them shared my experience. Over the five days, Dean had managed to build a group in which all of us respectfully pursed similar goals.

On Friday, it was time to return home. But before we left the monastery, we had a wrap-up session. Some of us talked about the eight hundred to a thousand words, others looked back and realised they had been able to untangle an important knot. For my part, I was able to transform the keywords collected for my thesis conclusion into full sentences. It’s still a first draft of the conclusion, but a draft I didn’t have before, and one that brings me closer to the end of a long and exciting journey. As the group began to say goodbye and disperse, a colleague suggested that we might meet again at the next writing school. I waved her off, not because I wouldn’t appreciate it but because I hope that I will have finished by then – we’ll see. Also, unfortunately, there is only room for fourteen participants, not twenty, as the ticket inspector had speculated. Doing the maths, the chances of me being able to attend again are small. (07.03.2024, Michael Anranter)

ViDSS student Michael Anranter participated in the Winter Writing School in Seitenstetten in February 2024. Michael is currently writing up his doctoral thesis about trust and mistrust in the context of a European infrastructure project in Bulgaria at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. (© Michael Anranter)