Where’s my collaboration mojo?

Happy March, dear AC readers!

In our last post, Kelsey reflected on a specific collaboration conundrum, and work-life balance in the pandemic. Today, Kim thinks about academic collaboration a bit more philosophically… with help from an amazing artist, Amanda Leduc.

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Two weeks ago, I attended a book launch on Zoom. Not my first rodeo, either: we’ve been festival-ing and launching and doing all the conference things on Zoom for coming up to a year now. (March 12 is my Zoomiversary; what’s yours, Kelsey?)

But this launch was different.

Sorry if you missed it! The launch for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, was Tuesday 16 February. There is a recording: view it here!

The celebration was for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, an extraordinary work that reflects on love, desire, grief and loss through a lens equal parts magic realism, fairy tale, and disability justice. (I HIGHLY recommend you order it. You can also check out Kelsey’s interview with Amanda, from 2020, here.)

We opened in now-utter-familiarity: the host, novelist and activist for literary equity Jael Richardson, was dropped from her internet connection mid-way through her delightful introduction. Turns out her power had gone off; in haste (though with spectacular grace, it must be said), fellow author Larissa Lai stepped in without missing a beat.

The launch then began in earnest not with Amanda, but with two of her collaborators: Victoria Carr, the musical artist who narrated the audio book (The Centaur’s Wife is the first novel in Canada to be published in all accessible formats simultaneously), and Anne Collins, Amanda’s editor at Penguin Random House. Victoria shared a song and then spoke to Larissa about her engagement with the characters, the process of recording the audio book, and the importance of being part of a small but mighty movement for literary accessibility (thanks to Amanda’s own perseverance). Anne and Larissa then talked about the long, sometimes messy, and always rewarding process of working with an author to bring the kernel of an idea into being as a novel-length work, written and rewritten again over a nearly five-year period.

Finally, Amanda stepped in to receive our applause, answer many challenging questions, and offer clear-eyed and fierce reflections on the work of literary artists (now more than ever).

Amanda speaking about her 2020 nonfiction book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, on TVO’s The Agenda.

I was riveted to the launch, and not just because Amanda is my friend and neighbour. It was compelling from start to finish precisely because it foregrounded literary arts as collaborative writing and publishing as the work of “a community,” as Amanda noted at the end of the event, directing our attention to the acknowledgements at the back of her book and inviting us all to read them.

It takes a village to make a book: we all know this, whether we write novels or nonfiction or monographs for other scholars or books for students or children. We all, in the scholarly publishing community, have our own acknowledgements pages. But Amanda’s launch reflected much more than the basics of this kind of book-as-village feel: it mirrored the fulsome, utterly joyous, depth-of-flavour-process that birthed her new book into being, and as I listened to and then reflected on the discussions about collaboration peppered throughout the launch, I started to reflect on my own collaborative journeys.

And I asked myself: what exactly are we – we academics, in particular – doing when we collaborate? How thick, how deep, are those processes for us? Especially when it comes to making books – books we might call “solo authored” on our CVs – where are our collaborators, and how do we make that process richer and more meaningful (not to mention more visible!) for all?

I’ve been an editor most of my career; I’ve written solo books too, of course, but I have gravitated toward (and, somewhat to my surprise, stayed with) editing in part because of the satisfaction it gives me to support another writer as they try to locate the core of their argument, and then reorganize the skeleton of their work better to support it. This work is often long, it’s often fraught, and – spoiler alert – I don’t think it’s aided in any way by the discursive frameworks that traditionally describe the academic writing process (aka: publish or perish, anyone?).

The scientists are not alone: this cartoon shows a racetrack-style setup, with a scientist with manuscript at one end, the words “paper accepted!” in lights at the other, and a collection of peers with instruments of torture ranged along the route. Save the grim reaper, all the cartoon scientists are white; this does not shock me.

Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of work to an academic journal? You prayed for “accept”, braced for “reject”, and while you knew that “revise and resubmit” wasn’t ideal, it would be acceptable (after a day or two, and maybe after a good cry).

I remember mine: in the third year of my PhD I sent a lightly revised term paper (later to be published in Modern Drama, and I’ll come back to that) to Theatre Journal, one of the most prestigious venues in our field. I received a fast response: a reject from the then-editor, who had clearly sussed out that this was a term paper and needed a lot of work to be even peer-reviewable. TJ is a big journal, publishing four times a year and loaded down with submissions, so I don’t blame this editor (who was a volunteer!!) for ending at reject (plus a couple of sentences to ostensibly steer me toward revision) – although I do still think about the prof who encouraged me to publish the paper without offering me any further advice on how to do that. (Story for another time.)

I was devastated. But I was also aware that I was supposed to be devastated: only the best get published, right? You are clearly not good enough yet, Kim! Work harder! Graft alone to make that paper better! When it reflects that you are smart-smart-enough you will get the royal “accept”, and then you can feel like less of an imposter!

When the imposter syndrome expert realizes she has imposter syndrome… #realtalk

What a high, barred gate those three options, “reject”, “revise and resubmit”, and “accept” make together, yes? They keep out those who are not in the know; those who don’t have sympathetic mentors; those who do not come from academic or cultural privilege.

I learned this unspoken fact of academic life only through my connection to Modern Drama, where I was an editorial assistant: I was lucky enough to be working with then co-editor Joanne Tompkins on my research “day job”, which meant I could approach her for advice. I shared both the TJ editor’s note and my draft with her; she then took the time to teach me the difference between a term paper and an article (something every graduate student needs to learn sooner or later, btw, because it is not knowledge that sprouts unbidden from your degree certificate).

She guided me gently through a rigorous editorial process, then sent the paper for peer review at Modern Drama. It remains today one of the most downloaded papers in the history of the journal, and one of which I’m most proud.

Joanne is my editorial mentor, as I am mentor to others now. I’m not saying this to suggest that Joanne and I are special; we were/are able to do this kind of mentoring work because our work circumstances are fortunately such that we have the time to do the actual labour of editing – to undertake the kind of process Anne undertook with Amanda, a genuine, durational collaboration between author and editor, writer and curious, informed, but detached eye.

Penguin Random House editor Anne Collins.
Kim’s editorial mentor, Professor Joanne Tompkins (Queensland)

As Anne put it during the launch, we editors are privileged to invest in the work of authors for whom the piece under construction is owned, held dear; this allows us to hold and support them, cheer them on and push them harder, all the while letting them know that if the roof caves in someone is there with a fix, a hug, words of encouragement and a path forward out of the muddle. (I really like this metaphor of investment; it captures what I feel as an editor.)

In the academy, though, who really has this kind of investable time? Editing work is considered “volunteer” work among us profs, and detrimentally it often valued as such: I had to fight to make my editing labour “count” when time came for me to go up for promotion, and only one of the three external examiners of my portfolio made explicit note of my editing’s proper, collaborative value. We’re usually told not to bother editing: monographs or high-profile journal articles “count” for more than “edited” volumes, as though there is no work done in those projects. (HA!!!) Editing a journal? Be prepared for nobody at your institution to notice or care.

In other words: what (still) most “counts” in the publish-or-perish landscape is the labour you are expected to do alone, isolated, terrified even that the result will never be good enough.

Of course your finished book/article will bear the hands of others, and sometimes (rarely) those hands will be very hands-on, the hands of a supportive editor with the time and space to share. More often, though, they will be the hands of outsourced copyeditors paid a pittance, and publishers whose interest extends to “get the damn thing in on time”. At many crossover book publishers (Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen, I’m looking at you), traditional peer review isn’t even guaranteed anymore, depriving us (when the reviewer is kind, when the reviewer recognizes their responsibility) of what little thoughtful third-party advice we could count on when it’s needed most.

This is a catastrophe. Editing labour is arduous but urgent and needs supporting and rewarding, at all levels of publication and among both academics and career editors. (When I talked to Amanda about this, she noted that Anne is herself a rarity in the world of fiction publishing.)

Further, sending graduate students out into the academic work world equipped with the belief that their careers stand or fall on the things they write while isolated, uncertain of their worth, and filled with anxiety is genuinely cruel and a recipe for ongoing exclusion and white-washing in the ivory tower.

Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that Amanda’s brilliant new book is at bottom about disability justice, about making space for others in worlds that demonize difference; it was made possible because Anne held Amanda, and Amanda worked with and for Anne, and through Anne’s support, over a period of years – culminating in a triumph.

How many of us can say that about even one piece of our academic writing? I’m genuinely curious.

What are your stories of collaboration in academic labour, friends? What are the highs? The lows? Is it getting better from where you sit, or worse? Let us know.

Interview with Amanda Leduc

Building off last week’s conversation between Kim and Colleen Kim Daniher, this week we’ve got another conversation in the form of interview between Kelsey and author Amanda Leduc. In it, Amanda and I chat about the pedagogy of fairytales, disability representation, writing tips, and responsible social media use for public figures.

KB: Let’s start by having you introduce yourself.

AL: My name is Amanda Leduc. I’m a writer based in Hamilton. In my day job, I work as the communications coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity, based in Brampton, Ontario.

I’m also an author. I published a novel in 2013 called The Miracles of Ordinary Men and have a new non-fiction book, coming out in February 2020, called Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. It’s about how the representation of disability in fairy tales has been historically less than positive but has also influenced how disability is portrayed in the media today. I weave that in with my own narrative as a disabled woman with cerebral palsy. Then, I have another novel coming out hopefully in the Spring of 2021.

Amanda Leduc

KB: As the curator for a pedagogy and performance blog, I’m interested in the teaching element of fairy tales. Do you think fairy tales have changed in terms of their teaching ability?

AL: Fairy tales have always had that didactic purpose. They exist to teach us morals about how to live in the world. In fact, one of the things that’s powerful about fairy tales is that they have a social purpose in terms of reaching for a world that’s better. The hero at the beginning of the fairy tale has a particular kind of life that they want to escape in some shape or form. And in the fairy tales that end happily, they manage to escape that life.

The interesting thing for me is that that model doesn’t really apply to the disabled body. You don’t have stories about how society needs to change. You have stories about personal transformation: the ugly beast is made beautiful at the end of the tale and marries the beautiful princess.

I was really transfixed by this idea that the disabled, othered, body has to change in a fairy tale in order for some sort of happy ending or conclusion to come about. It’s never society that changes. Disability is almost a character flaw or some sort of physical flaw that can be overcome if someone just wants to do it badly enough. When you, then, apply that fairy tale framework to the stories that we tell in modern day, a lot of those same threads continue to perpetuate myths and stereotypes of disability.

This is the kind of conversation that’s been going on in disability activism and disability studies for decades but in the mainstream world, it hasn’t been talked about as much.

The cover from Amanda’s upcoming book

KB: How do you see yourself intervening in that?

AL: I hope that my new book will get people thinking differently about the way the disabled body is portrayed in fairy tales.

Fairy hit us at such a young age that they really have a lasting impact on the way we move through the world. And the way that we approach certain kinds of stories. Their stories offer very pervasive, insidious, ways of teaching young children especially about disability. And very specific, hard, ideas, about what it means to be different in the world.

I think that’s changing, but it’s still there.

I also think we need to be increasing disability representation. There’s a real thing that happens where people like myself, who have a disability that is maybe milder than others, work to minimize their disability. I worked for a large portion of my life to pretend that my disability wasn’t there because I didn’t feel I could be accepted in the world as a person with a disability.

If we normalize disability and normalize the idea that the world is full of people who are all different shapes and sizes and have different abilities and do different things, it doesn’t become this othering. We all have different needs, and we can build a world that can accommodate those different needs but we have to do it together.

KB: Switching gears, many of our readers do a lot of writing. What are your top three tips for getting writing done?

AL:

      Step One: Put your bum in the chair. That has to happen.

The most dreaded piece of furniture for any writer.

             Step Two: Try to minimize distractions. I need to put my phone far away and turn off social media notifications on my computer. Disconnect the Internet if possible.

          Step Three: Create a ritual around the writing. I make sure I have nice cup of tea. I make sure the chair is comfortable and that the desk is clean. I put some nice music on. That helps it feel like an enjoyable experience. Because, you know, sometimes writing is not. So, at least if I have the trappings of things that I like around me, I can delve into the work. That might be frustrating but it’s still enjoyable on some level because I’m surrounded by things that I love.

KB: In addition to being a writer, you’re also an active social media user. Kim and I have chatted a lot about the quagmire of using social media as an information dissemination and pedagogical tool. What’s your experience of social media been like?

AL: Twitter has undergone a really interesting evolution over the last ten years. It used to be this optimistic and lovely place for people to come together with like-minded groups of people. Now, it has transmorphed into to a place that is better in some ways because it’s really offered a platform for communities that might not get the opportunity to speak otherwise, like the disability community, which is very active on Twitter. But, also just because you can say something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Screenshot from a video embedded in a super interesting article on twitter and violence against women from Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-1/

KB: What would your three social media tips be for educators and researchers?

AL: As someone who is specifically as an educator, you really have a difficult line to walk in terms of allowing some of your personality in your public profile. This is what endears people to you. It’s what helps build a community. But, also, you can’t reveal too much or be too “real” if you will. That’s hard.

          First, be sure to inject some personality into your social media but then also be very careful and strategic about the boundaries you put in place to protect yourself and others.

          Second, set out very clear boundaries for yourself: these are the kinds of interactions that I will not engage in.

          Third, one of the things that’s been most helpful for me is thinking of social media as a conversation. It has been just as fascinating to listen to Twitter conversations as it has been to participate in them. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. It’s important always to be listening as much, if not more, than speaking. Because it’s a learning process for all of us. Students and teachers alike.

Thanks, Amanda!

For more on Amanda’s upcoming book, Disfigured On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, go here.