Collaborative Writing, with Undergrads

Those of you who read regularly know I’ve been jonesing for collaboration lately. I talked about it extensively in my recent post for Gary and Lena at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, and I reflected on my need for more of it in my last post, which focused on what’s next (or might be next) for my writing practice.

Then, a couple of weeks ago – just as the semester had reached the “oh lord, just shoot me now” point that is early April – an opportunity for an ideal collaboration, with a senior undergraduate student, fell into my lap.

Keith Tomasek at Stratford Festival Reviews had invited me a while back to review the Canadian premiere of Fun Home, the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. (NB: Bechdel test? THAT Bechdel.) The tickets finally came through (along with yet another dump of late-season snow) and I realized I had a spare ticket to give away.

Cue the moment when I ALSO realized that my fourth-year honours thesis student, Rachel Windsor, had spent the last six months researching and writing about Bechdel’s memoir. Might she like to come along? She jumped at the chance – and also at the chance to help me out with the review. Her writing on the memoir was stellar, original; I knew she’d be a great collaborator, even if a novice reviewer. Our team was born.

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Here’s Rachel, in her headshot for our review.

The night of the show was another blusterer (thanks, winter. Fuck off now like a good pet, please), but we had a fabulous time. It was opening night, so the crowds were thick in the tiny main-floor theatre lobby, and many were dressed up and partying in the second-floor lobby bar. The cast began a little bit out of tune, but that lasted no more than a few minutes. In no time, the inescapable enthusiasm and raw talent of the young members of the cast (there are three children in the show) shone through, and we were laughing hard and clapping harder at the signature number “Come to the Fun Home” (Fun Home = Bechdel family funeral home) – with the young Bechdels Jackson-Five-ing it in and around the casket they are polishing.

After the show, Rachel and I walked back to Dundas Square and chatted about what we liked and didn’t like; what we’d expected, gotten, and not quite gotten, from the 90-or-so minute show. We hatched a plan to compare notes the next day.

The next morning, in the middle of one of my final exams, I had a bit of a revelation: what if Rachel and I restaged our post-show chat as a dialogic review? I sketched a raw outline and shot it over to her. She began filling in answers to my mock questions, and we were off.

The results are now up at Stratfordfestivalreviews.com, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turned out – not least because this review practically wrote itself, what with the fun of re-enacting our dialogue on paper and the pleasure of working with a genuinely talented and capable collaborator.

Here’s a short excerpt; for the full review, please click here.

Kim: Rachel, you’ve been working on Bechdel’s memoir, on which the musical is based, for over a year. That’s a whole lot of back story to bring to an adaptation! Going into the performance, what did you most want to see translated from page to stage?

Rachel: I definitely walked into the theatre with a lot of anticipation! My own work on the memoir has to do primarily with its powerful engagements with trauma and memory – both Alison’s and her dad’s – so I was really hoping to see the actors grapple with representing these challenging concepts on stage.

Bechdel describes her work in the original memoir as “tragicomic,” but a large part of the premise of “Fun Home” is Bechdel’s own father Bruce Bechdel’s suicide. It’s hard to make that scenario lighthearted – which is at least somewhat necessary in a musical! – and so I was very curious to see how Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori would go about building this central, traumatic situation into the entertainment value that musicals demand.

Kim: I’m someone relatively unfamiliar with Bechdel’s memoir (your thesis introduced me to it, in fact!), but I’m familiar with Lisa Kron and her legacy as a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers performance troupe (in New York in the 1980s and 1990s). I therefore expected a story that would foreground lesbian experience from a specifically queer-feminist point of view, but also from a quite personal perspective. (Kron has written other popular autobiographical works, including 2.5 Minute Ride and Well.)

The musical’s primary focus, in fact, is on Alison’s coming-out story, and especially on the way that story intertwines with Bruce’s life as a closeted gay man. Given Kron’s background, that personal-is-political framing made sense to me. So did the use of three Alisons to add rich context and scope to this particular lesbian life.

(Small Alison is played by Hannah Levinson; college-aged [Medium] and adult Alison are played by Sara Farb and Laura Condlln respectfully. The latter two are regulars with the Stratford Festival, as is Evan Builing [Bruce], and Cynthia Dale [who plays Helen Bechdel]).

Fun Home, Toronto, Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Rachel: The three Alisons were brilliant; thanks to them, the musical adaption really foregrounded the role and function of memory in the story. The graphic memoir carefully resists the kind of linear timeline that we associate with autobiography, and I think the adaption would have lost an important quality had it reverted to the traditional past-to-present structure typical of memoir storytelling.

And the Alisons interact! For example, I really enjoyed when adult Alison cringes hilariously at Medium Alison’s awkward attempts to woo her first crush. This strategy allowed the musical to employ a more embodied process of remembering, and to make room for lots of welcome laughter.

Kim: The musical dates to 2013. But, even in 2018, the commentary the musical embeds about the incredible personal challenges that coming out in real life entails is as essential for me as it ever was. I often worry that, for all the good it can do, the current media vogue for gender-queerness risks masking the fact that actually living a gay or trans life is not as easy as selling a look on TV. Queer and trans folk still face real barriers, enormous discrimination, and violence.

All that said, I also hoped for a bit more politics in the musical. Sometimes it felt too easy to empathize with Alison’s story – as though all human experience at bottom is the same.

Sara Farb’s stand-out performance as Medium Alison is a joy to watch and hear, especially as she belts out the lines to “Changing My Major,” the iconic song in which she “comes out” to herself after a night with her new girlfriend, Joan. But Farb’s gorgeous accessibility is also, politically, for me a bit of a liability.

A young woman who just wants to be able to draw cartoons and love another woman with her parents’ blessing: in 2018, who can’t get behind that message? But, of course, the story Bechdel tells is nowhere near that simple.

Rachel: I had similar feelings about the musical’s rendering of Bruce. I wish that we could have seen more emphasis on his affairs with underage boys.

The character Roy (played by Eric Moran) in the memoir is one of Bruce Bechdel’s current high school students. The musical ages him up to become a recently graduated student. But part of the discomfort of Bechdel’s memoir comes from the reader’s reluctance to understand Bruce as a predator, or even as a pedophile.

As readers, we can’t really fall into easy generalizations of Bruce as a one-dimensional villain, because he’s such a loving and inspiring dad to Alison. At the same time, though, the memoir constantly reminds us that Bruce groomed and took advantage of young boys throughout his life as a teacher.

In the musical, there is still a sense of that predatory nature in some of Bruce’s interactions with Roy. For example, there’s a moment near the end of Helen’s solo when Bruce offers Roy a drink – on the condition that he takes off his shirt. Still, I found the musical left out a lot of the immoral and criminal actions that make Bruce such a complex character.

I can’t wait to do this again! Maybe I’ll make a point of taking students to ALL my future commissions. Thanks, Rachel, for such a joyful and revelatory writing experience!

Enthusiastically,

Kim

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So what’s next, then?

Hello again! Long time no see.

Actually… this may be the longest I’ve gone between posts in the five years since I began this blog. Holy crap.

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What happened? Well, I started teaching again after a sabbatical, which followed a house move, and which accompanied the writing of a book (which I’m happy to report I finished on 1 March, right on schedule). When the book wrapped, everything that had been on the back burner slid forward – and gosh, what a lot there was to slide. Exhaustion crept up on me quietly from behind… and before I knew it I was the one who was cooked. I spent most the second half of March forgetting to turn off the burners on my gas stove.

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(No, really. It’s not part of the metaphor!)

But something else also happened in March. After I completed the book, I found myself taking stock of the process I’d undergone. Of what I’d learned about my writing practice; of how I’d changed my writing practice.

Of what I was liking about my job and what I was hating about my job.

Of what I wanted to write next; of where I wanted my writing to take me next.

As I noted in my unschedule follow-up post in January, the writing experiment I undertook in order to start and finish my book project in five flat months was a huge success: I learned that I am exactly the kind of person who responds really well to the write-two-hours-each-day rule. I am deadline driven and I like a nice routine; I take pleasure in writing and I find that writing really is thinking for me. (For more on thinking-as-writing-as-thinking, click here.) I also tend to free-write in a way that comes out generally comprehensible and useable in a finished product, making free-write time productive for me in more than one way.

My revised unschedule for winter term provided a lot of slack, with large blocks of time only lightly scheduled, and only three writing hours marked off per week; I reasoned I would not be able to fit in much more. And was I ever right: in fact, since finishing the book, I have not written a single word in any of those scheduled writing hours. In a hilarious hairpin turn from my unschedule experience in the autumn, everything else about the unschedule has held – just not the writing.

When I realized this I found myself wondering why; of course the answer is obvious. My 40:40:20 workload* suggests I should spend two days per week on research and writing, all year round – but that’s utterly unreasonable in term, with its huge teaching and administrative commitments that typically spill far over their allocated three days per week. After dealing with students’ (increasingly harried) affect, the performance anxiety and adrenaline and exhaustion that comes with teaching a group of (young, increasingly harried, themselves exhausted) people for a sustained period of time, and the administrative palaver that managing courses with minimal secretarial support brings, one is not just tired; one is UTTERLY DRAINED. Add into that my personal commitment to sports (so that I can really enjoy my summer, I need to keep up my training in winter), and my new commute to and from campus by car (75 minutes; about 120km – each way), and, well, the truth is I had literally NO energy, physical or spiritual or intellectual, left in my body to write.

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My goodness, yes!

This taking-stock has provoked deeper questions for me. Like: am I doing what I actually want to be doing?

I loved writing – and writing a book for students! – so much that it literally changed me last autumn; I became a person with a regular writing practice and a smile plastered on her face. But working at a university – and at a university with at best a very ambivalent relationship to the arts – is also killing my writing spirit.

(I noted to a friend that my commute is new and I’ll get used to it; she noted in turn that the commute, in its newness, is also clarifying, foregrounding for me things I had not realized before. I now have the impetus to ask myself: is what I do on campus worth the 75-minute drive to get there?)

Further, the pleasure I took in writing the book was in large part pleasure taken as I dialogued in my head with the audience I was writing for. Not only does this contradict the things I’m feeling about teaching right now (aka tired; super over it), but it also calls into question what I want to write in future, as I recover the wonderful writing practice currently lying dormant while spring straggles into view.

I wrote a monograph but not a “monograph”; I wrote an academic book for students, which (as anyone who has undergone a REF cycle knows very well) is often perceived to be not a “real” academic book at all. Do I want to write another “academic monograph”? I’m not sure.

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Pretty much a monograph. Yup.

Who do I want to write for? – this is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. As I noted in my post for Gary and Lena in February, I love collaboration; how do I want to write, and with whom? If the answer is – as I suspect it will be – not academic audiences, and not alone – how do I do that in a way compatible with my job?

I had a freakout on facebook about this a while back. In a particular fit of pique I wrote:

“what does it say about me that I have literally no desire to write another academic monograph?”

The reaction was significant, and surprising. Lots of people were on board with my urge to ditch the monograph form and write something else, or maybe just make some art for a change. But a number of people I care about and respect also took offence, suggesting that I was disrespecting an incredibly important form of knowledge transfer in our field.

Talking to one another as academics is hugely valuable, of course, and we need specialist forms and languages to do that. But somehow, I thought, I don’t want to do that myself, anymore.

Or do I? I suspect, looking back, that what I was reacting to on facebook wasn’t a particular writing mode or output, but actually the structures that shape our writing lives as academics.

Academic monographs come with a mental image: they imply a certain amount of solitary reading, research, writing. (See above…) We sequester ourselves or steal time from our teaching or seek leaves to carve out space for this work. We emerge with a product that, if we are lucky, a handful of people read; it lives out its life on library shelves, perhaps inspiring dedicated senior students as time goes on. As for us, we head back into the classroom, back onto the treadmill; we teach and graft and struggle until we can steal some more time, apply for more leave, disappear from campus into our studies, and do it again.

BUT.

Despite my anti-monograph facebook screed, this is apparently exactly what I’m craving right now: to disappear again into a space with my writing and find the joy my work brought me in autumn, a joy I have not felt in my work in a good while. But why, why, must I disappear? Why can’t teaching and writing co-exist for me in a way that allows one to feed the other simultaneously, that leaves me with more and not less energy?

How can I claw away some of the stress that attends my teaching practice and thereby make more breathing room for in-term writing, year-round writing, happy and maybe – but not necessarily – productive writing?

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The truth is that I don’t know what I want to write next. I’d like time to find out, and to find out, I’m going to need to write for a while and just see what happens. In order to permit myself that freedom to write, I’m going to have to reinvent the entire work structure (that is, 40:40:20, research:teaching:admin) that bolsters my new writing practice.

This doesn’t mean making another un-schedule, I’ve realized; as I proved this past month, it’s entirely possible for me to keep to the unschedule perfectly – except for the writing part.

Rather, it means refocusing the emotional attention I pay to teaching prep and teaching stress, admin graft and stress; perhaps it means compartmentalizing carefully some of that stress so that I can really leave it behind when I leave my campus office.

I don’t know how to do this yet, but I’m hoping to spend some time this summer figuring out a plan. Part of my summer will be spent reinventing (in fact: decolonizing) two of my regular courses (more on that in an upcoming post), and also in planning a brand new one. I hope that, as part of that teaching-side labour, I can find ways to weave my writing practice into my teaching practice, bringing these work things often thought to be disparate into a healthier alignment.

I imagine already that this might involve me experimenting with free-writing as prep; it might involve me building more free-writing into class time proper (and including myself in that free-writing, in class!). It may also involve me purchasing a folding bicycle, and writing on the train.

Like I said: not yet sure. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Happy end of semester!

Kim

*40:40:20 = 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Ya, right. ;-/