parenting · writing

Bodies and Brains and Babies

So yeah, I’m pregnant. After all the fuss about not being able to be, three years of fuss, my partner and I are having our first kid this summer. I’m firmly in the second trimester, that wonderful time when you look back on the last few months and realize “Oh right! THIS is how I’m supposed to feel, not exhausted and queasy and generally anxious. I’d forgotten.”

You’d think that, feeling good again, I’d be anxious to get back to writing here and elsewhere. Baby brain doesn’t seem to have set in yet, so the words are there in roughly the same quantity and sophistication as usual. I have a list of posts and ideas as long as my arm. I have the time (although less than usual, as a terribly timed basement renovation means commuting to the city from my parents’ house in the suburbs while our place is unlivable).

What I don’t have is the motivation. And it’s not just the motivation to write–it’s the motivation to engage in much of anything academic or intellectual. Instead, I find myself drawn to physical comedy (we’re watching the incredibly silly Baywatch movie as I write this), to cooking, to planning for my vegetable garden and the new basement, to walking, to snuggling the cats, to looking out the window, to examining the outward evidence of my body building a whole new human from scratch with no conscious instruction from me.

I’m into the physical, into sensation, into doing instead of thinking. Which is weird for me.

But I’m relishing being forcefully embodied, as strange as it is. I have a terrible habit, one reinforced by an academic culture that sees bodies as a nuisance or an afterthought, of forgetting that I’m not a mind in a meatsack but a wholly integrated, embodied consciousness. I can’t do that now. There’s nothing about this process over which my conscious mind has control–my body is in the driver’s seat. And I’m letting it be.

I haven’t always been able to. Part of the reason why it took us so long to get to this point was that I was afraid of doing just that. While in theory I wanted to have a child, I was fearful of letting that desire get in the way of my ambition as a professional and a writer, of my intellect. I’m really into my job and my writing, and into being good at (and ambitious about) both.

Through both, I not only get to exercise my skills and feel accomplished; I get to help people who need helping, every day. I get to put policies in place that pay for childcare and airfare for their children when my students and fellows go to conferences. I get to tell the Tri-Agencies that their insistence on postdoc mobility hurts the careers of academic mothers, and watch them make a different decision than they might otherwise have. I get to make sure that my disabled students have all of the equipment and supports they need to do their work and succeed. I get to write about how CanLit in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for the messed up CanLit of today so that knowing its history can help us do better.

The fear that motherhood would prevent me from doing all of those things, even as I very much wanted both, kept me from actively addressing my infertility for longer than I should have. I was so tied to living and working in my brain that it kept me from doing something I really wanted to, but was afraid of. My ambition was familiar and desirable, whereas becoming a parent is a process entirely mysterious and unknowable.

But I’m not afraid now. That’s  lie–I’m terrified about how hard motherhood will be, because I know it will be ever so good but ever so hard. But I’m not afraid of giving things up. I have, and I will again and again, but I’ll get them back, because I want them. I can be a body who builds and feeds babies and a brain who thinks and writes and works, who does the work of making sure that other people who want to do the same can have as much of both as they want and need. I can be a person who models that for my kid.

It seems silly to say it out loud–of course I can do both, with some significant compromises and what I’m sure will be plenty of guilt and conflicted priorities–but it doesn’t feel silly. And it’s not, really, for me or millions of other ambitious women who face motherhood in a world that makes it really hard not to have to choose.



risky writing · sabbatical · Uncategorized · writing

How much can I write in a day?

There is a big tra-la-la on Twitter currently, about profs working 60 hour weeks and other profs not working 60 hour weeks and people talking about power and performance-of-busyness and overwork and systems and ranks and all of it.

This post is not about that. This post is about how much I can write in one day: for how long, what kind of writing, and how.

I’ve been on sabbatical for just over a month. So, I’m not doing much, work wise, except writing. My email is minimal; I have no department or administrative meetings; I’m not teaching. I am still working with my grad students and their writing, and I did go to a conference for three days.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • How much I can write? Between 300-4000 words per day, depending on what kind of writing I’m doing
  • For how long? Between 4 and 6 thirty-minute poms, which, with breaks, means a workday that begins about 9am and runs to 1 or 2pm. (Total writing time is between 2 and 3 hours; total workday is 4 or 5 hours long)
  • What kind of writing? I have been free-writing (easy and fun); note-taking and bookmarking (easy and boring); birds-eye overview of main ideas and the main point of the chapter (intense and exciting); crafting outlines and trying to carve out a structure (hard and slow)
  • How? I write in 30 minute bursts, according to a task list and schedule my coach and I set up once a week, for the coming week.

I had this idea that being on sabbatical would mean that I would be Working On My Research for 8 hours a day. I know writing is taxing, so I figured I would only do that for three or four hours a day (I didn’t seem to plan any breaks in there), and then after lunch, I would read books and article and take notes or do library searches or some such.

That was way too much. That was just not possible for me.

In the 2-3 hours of total writing time, spread over 4 or 5 hours of the day, over the past three weeks, I have got an incredible amount of work done: I have made huge progress on the book chapter I’m working on, including: finding and bookmarking and taking notes (about 7000 words) on all my primary sources, and the popular sources that engage them; adding 4500 words to the chapter draft; creating a solid and workable outline of the structure and arguments of the chapter from scratch; creating a research task list, organized and referenced, for my RA; creating section outlines and cutting and pasting the whole chapter draft into the correct sections of the new outline; and starting to fill the holes that I now see in the draft.

In three weeks, writing for not more than 3 hours per day, I’ve brought a book chapter from 10% done to about 65% done. I’m on track to finish it by the end of the month, which is to say, I will have written a solid draft of a whole book chapter in about 6 weeks. In a work week that usually has between 12-15 hours of writing in it and not the 40 I thought were going to be necessary.

I keep thinking I must not be working hard enough. That I’m slacking off. But I’ll tell you, first, that what I am doing is exhausting: by the end of my writing time each day, I just climb into bed with the cat and a Magic Bag and pass out hard for 45 minutes. I am spent; I have nothing left in me to write or think anymore by the time my last pom is done. Second, by the time I get up the next morning, I am excited and full of energy, and eager to sit back down and start writing. That has been a revelation. Third, I’m able to take care of myself and that makes a huge difference: I am trying new recipes in my Instant Pot; running five times a week, three of those with a running group; going to bed on time; spending quality time with my husband and daughter; taking the weekends to just … live my life. I am feeling really, really good. It’s nice.

So sabbatical for me looks like 16-20 hours of work during the week, and none during the weekend. I expect that the burst of frenetic thinking and writing and editing that comes from finishing a piece will mean the occasional week where I work more than that, and weeks where I travel for talks or conferences will look a little different, too.

But I wanted you to know: in the ideal circumstance of the sabbatical, where writing is my only job, I still can’t do it for more than 6 poms in a day, and that 6 poms a day is proving to be remarkably productive. I would say it’s okay to have limits, but we actually don’t have a choice about our limits. They are what they are. By respecting what my limits are, I am able, paradoxically, to do much better work than when I push myself harder, and am able to be happy, and balanced, and healthy. We don’t hear a lot of stories about doing less. So I wanted to tell you mine.


classrooms · emotional labour · grading · pedagogy · teaching · Uncategorized · writing


I was complaining to myself about how slow my grading was going and how I was a slacker for not getting it done faster. Then I added up some numbers. Then I tweeted this, that is to say, complaining to others, and it got a LOT of traction relative to my usual Twitter complaints:


So that’s what I’m going to expand on today: grading is writing, and it’s work, and we do way more of it, probably than we think we do.

Here’s how I grade. Students hand in their assignments (a lot of short writing assignments, usually between 400-1200 words) and I mark them up with pen as I go–I put tiny underlines under simple errors; I write marginalia that queries a point, or offers a readerly reaction like “ha!” or “aha!” or “hm” or “!” or “are you sure?”; I write sentence fragments in response to the main idea. When I’ve finished reading and marking-up the paper copy, I write up more formal notes, summative and formative, in Word. This weekend I was grading Evidence-Based Arguments for my first years, so I have one Word doc called “Evidence-Based Argument” and I just concatenate everyone’s feedback in that one doc, separated by page breaks. So there’s a running word count for the whole thing.

For 24 Evidence-Based Arguments I graded this week, I wrote 2735 words. That’s a lot of writing, it struck me. I opened the other files for that course. The Internet Literacy Narrative? 2898 words. The Fact-Check Report? 2763 words. You can see that’s about 100 words per assignment, for a total in the course so far of about 8500 words. That’s a longish academic article worth of words.

Now I’m curious. For my grad class this term, 15 students, I’ve graded essay proposals and annotated bibliographies, and two 400 word response papers per student. [Goes away and calculates] Just over 6000 words of feedback.

That makes 14,500 words of formal written feedback since September. Not counting marginalia or emails or verbal feedback in office visits.

Last semester my courses were bigger–a fourth year seminar of 25 students and a first year course of 40. [More calculation ensues] 22,000 words for the first years and 16,000 for the fourth years, so that’s 38,000 formal grading words in the winter term.

In my assigned teaching in 2017, I’m at 52,500 words of direct feedback to students typed into Word docs. I’m not done yet: my first years and my grads have final papers yet to hand in for me to give them feedback on.

I have also read and given extensive feedback on …. lessee …. four complete dissertation, and about 8 dissertation chapters this year? I don’t know how much I wrote for those, but it was a lot.

I don’t begrudge this work. But I would like it to be more visible than it is. A writing intensive course for students is a feedback intensive course for professors. I often will note in my annual reports that my first years write: a response paper, then revise it, then produce a paper with a stepped structure of proposal, bibliography, intro paragraph, draft, and final paper. But I do not note what *I* am writing in response to this.

Linda Carson on Twitter suggested that in academic life as in most other domains, what counts is what gets counted. She encouraged me to think about writing out these numbers on my report. I might. But even personally, I think I generally tend to dis-count this writing as writing, because not only do I not literally count up how much of it I do, I don’t think it “counts” as real writing.

But it does, in its way: crafting feedback on student work is a balancing act of formative and summative goals, a kind of specificity of address that lets the student know you really heard them, but a level-appropriateness that encourages reach without overwhelming. No wonder we get tired doing it.

Anyhow. I’m at about, as I say, 52,000 words of feedback I can directly count up in my Word docs from my 2017 teaching. That’s not all of it, but it’s most of it. If it feels supportive, I encourage you to look back, if it’s easy enough to do, and see how much you’ve got done this year, too.

This is real work, real writing, creative and laborious. It counts.

movement · risk · Uncategorized · writing

Trying Things that Scare Me


Have any of you read Carol Dweck’s MindsetIt’s not a new book, and its basic points (or a corrupted version of them) have pretty well sunk into the popular consciousness, so you likely know about it even if you haven’t read it. Dweck argues that people bring two basic mindsets to the things they do (and often a combination of the two): a growth mindset that says that talent and skill are built over time and we can get better and smarter with practice, and a fixed mindset that says that intelligence and skill are innate and cannot be changed or improved with effort.

Tons of academics have a fixed mindset about their intelligence and their work. (It me, at least sometimes.) We’ve tied our identities to being smart, to being good at our jobs. Instead of trying radically new things, risking being bad at something, we can get stuck in the trap of doing what we know that we can do well. If I think that my intelligence and skill are fixed, I’m going to be more concerned about protecting my identity as a smart person (i.e. doing easy things that make me look smart) than doing new things that are going to help me grow (i.e. the hard things that I’m going to be bad at to start and might make me look less competent or skilled).

I’m trying to develop my growth mindset. While a fixed mindset is comfortable and safe, it’s boring. And, I know, false. There are lots of things I’ve gotten better at over time, things I value a lot like cooking, and writing, and friendship, and feminism. I just hate the being bad at things part, and I wanted to challenge myself to embrace the suckitude, to learn to get comfortable with being a beginner. To take pleasure in the process and not the product.

So, I threw myself into a bunch of things that I knew were going to challenge my fixed mindset. I started biking to work, which was something I was afraid of because the stakes for doing it wrong can be really high (Toronto drivers, amirite?). I’m teaching myself how to do Tunisian crochet. And I’m taking a creative non-fiction class where I have to write things pretty far out of my usual academic/blog/advice writing wheelhouse and read them aloud to strangers for critique. Yipes.

And so far, it’s pretty okay! I bike to and from work every day and I’m very comfortable being a city cyclist now. (It helps that the Bike Share bikes, which are what I ride most often, are tanks and I don’t ever have to worry about my bike being stolen.) My first creative non-fiction class was on Tuesday and I really liked being forced to write something fast without time to think or self-critique. Writing “growth mindset” in big letters at the top of the page was actually helpful in terms of reminding me that it’s okay to not be good at this. And the thing that’s the lowest stakes is proving the most challenging–I’ve started and ripped out my crochet project a half-dozen times now, and have put it aside because I’m finding that level of not-goodness challenging to deal with. I’m going to try again tonight, and remind myself that even if my scarf looks nothing like this, there’s enjoyment to be had in playing with beautiful fibres and, hopefully, in slowly getting better at something.

I might not like being bad at things, but I like the person I am when I let myself be.





advice · from dissertation to book · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Choosing a Publisher


Before I went through the process of working to get my dissertation published–or rather, before my dissertation was finished and I wasn’t sure yet what or how good it was going to be–I was worried about any publisher wanting it. Never mind thinking about having a choice of where I’d like it to be published, about finding the best fit for me and the project.

Don’t be like me!

When it comes to publishing your dissertation, you have many choices and considerations:

  • Where to submit your proposal
  • How to frame your proposal for different presses and tailor how you present the project to suit a publisher’s style and mandate
  • Which editors you’re most interested in working with
  • Which publisher is going to give you the most say in how the book turns out in the end
  • Which publisher has a vision for the project that aligns with yours.
  • Which press pays the best royalties, or has the best marketing department, or does the best book design.

In my case, I shopped my dissertation manuscript to two presses in which I was particularly interested, having done my research about all of the possible options and their various strengths. One was a very traditional university press with a strong track-record in Canadian literary studies (my primary field) and the other a younger and more innovative university press with a strong and growing list in Canadian life writing (my genre). My relationships with the acquisitions editors to whom I sent my proposal came about in the twisty, unexpected way that is as often the norm as a straightforward pop into the publisher’s booth at a conference: one editor I had worked with during my brief stint at a university press between my Master’s and PhD; the other editor reached out to me about the possibility of writing an entirely different book after reading my work on H&E and seeing some of it at Congress, and then became interested in my dissertation manuscript during our conversations.

What came next was the same for both editors–a series of coffee meetings and the exchange of ideas about what I had in mind for my biography of Jay Macpherson and what they thought their press would and could do with the project. I wrote a formal proposal, although I didn’t necessarily need to, that we used as our basis of discussion. Because I have a very strong vision for the project–that it be accessible in style and cost, that it be a ‘partial life’ and not a cradle-to-grave biography, that I have significant control over format and design–I shared the same proposal with both editors, despite the very different profiles and approaches of their presses.

In many ways, finding a publisher for my manuscript felt a lot like my most recent job search. I was ready to move on, but I could afford to be very selective–I had a good job, one I could stay in until the just right thing came along. And so when I was interviewing for new positions, I was interviewing potential new employers as much as they were interviewing me–did our interests and approaches align? did we have the same vision for my role? did the idea of working together excite us both? I ended up choosing to work for a place where the answer to all of those was (and continues to be, nearly three years later) yes.

Meeting with publishers was much the same. As we met and discussed, we were both assessing if our interests and approaches with this book aligned, if we had the same vision for the manuscript, if the idea of working together excited us both. It became clear pretty quickly that one press, in particular, had a vision that aligned very closely with mine, and, moreover, that the editor had ideas for the book that I hadn’t even thought of but were both inspiring and exciting. Because I was clear about what I wanted from and for my book, it also quickly became clear to me that working with the other, more traditional press, probably wasn’t something that was going to work well for either of us–they ultimately wanted something in line with what they’ve always done, which would have meant a book that was less accessible, affordable, and innovative than I wanted.

Choosing a publisher also, to a certain extent, felt a little like dating: how much did I connect with this editor? Could I see myself working with them for a couple of years to shepherd this project into the world? Would they make me as a writer and thinker, and the book, better? The clincher came when I took a headlong sprawl across the sidewalk on my way to meeting the editor from the younger press. She handled my showing up bloody, bandaid-strewn, and late with aplomb, and I realized that I could be myself with her–a whole person who writes books, not just a writer or a brain in an unwieldy, bruised body. A project of this magnitude takes your whole self to complete, especially when you work in life writing and are committed to a personally-engaged kind of scholarship the way I am, and I wanted to work with someone who didn’t expect otherwise.

I decided what was important to me in publishing this book, and I found a press that supported those decisions. What’s important to you might be different–it might be prestige, or money, or a different kind of editorial relationship–but you can, and should, decide and then find what you want. Academic publishing might be a buyer’s market, but it’s not so much one that you don’t have choices.

So I wrote to that other editor to let him know that I was going to go with the publisher whose vision aligned more closely with my own, rather than revising the book to meet his publisher’s expectations, and I signed my first book contract. My biography of Jay Macpherson should be coming out with Wilfrid Laurier University Press sometime in 2019, and I’m having a ball with the revisions. I’m also super excited to see how this book turns out, as my editor (the delightful and brilliant Siobhan McMenemy) and I have a bunch of ideas about how to do something innovative and accessible.

And next up in the series: contract negotiations!

academic work · book · research · Uncategorized · writing

Research Day

I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:

  • 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
  • [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
  • 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
  • [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
  • 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
  • [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
  • 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
  • [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
  • 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents

A pretty good morning!

It’s a total goddamn mess, is what it is

However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was  I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.

And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!

But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.

If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?


peer review · writing

Learning to Love Being Edited


I had this professor in graduate school who was notorious for being a brutal grader. You would submit a paper for her class, and know that you would get it back with nearly every word marked up, plus a page of razor-sharp, painful comments at the end. We all dreaded the day we knew she was returning our work. We all learned to get our papers back, quickly check our final grade (they were often quite good, despite the reams of criticism), and then tuck the paper away until we could come back to the edits with the ability to actually process them, not just with tears and adrenaline.

Later in graduate school, I had a supervisor who didn’t want to see work until it was as close to polish perfect as I could get it. I was stuck on the first big section of my research project, and would have loved to share the draft work I had in hand so that we would work together to figure out why I was stuck and where to go next. But that wasn’t an option, because I was expected to figure it out on my own, and so I stayed stuck for a long time. It was a moment when I really could have used a generous editor to move things along.

My PhD supervisor gives her graduate students an article she’s submitted for publication, along with the peer review reports, and has them read and summarize the most useful feedback for her. It means that she doesn’t have to read the more scathing (and infuriating–we all hate the reviewer whose point is just “you didn’t do it how I would”) reviews, and her students learn how peer review works and how to respond to requests for revision. It also means that she never has to cry over reviewer reports so critical and uncollegial that their writers would never say those things in person.

Given my experience, it’s no wonder that I hated getting feedback and being edited when I was still in academia. As teaching assistants and professors, so many of us aren’t trained in anything like the way that substantive and copyeditors are–to give useful, kind feedback that the writers we teach will actually respond to and act on, not just shut down about. Some of our ranks hide behind the anonymity of peer review to provide feedback that is unnecessarily harsh and potentially damaging. We’re also (for those of us in traditional humanities and arts programs) trained in a system that privileges originality and sole authorship over so much else. We don’t learn how to see writing and publication as a collaborative act.

So it’s been a surprise to me how much I love being edited these days. Many of my current writing projects–selected poetry editions, articles for major online publications, ghostwriting–require me to work with professional editors, and to have my work go through at least one, sometimes many, rounds of substantive, line, and copy editing. Sometimes my editors are really happy with what I send in, and it gets a minor tweaking. Sometimes I’m told to go back to the drawing board and try again. In either case, I genuinely appreciate it, and that’s a huge change from my experience in academia.

Why is that? Here’s what I identify as the key differences from my past experience that make being edited such a generative process now:

  • By virtue of our working relationship, my editors and I are in this together. We’re both working toward the common goal producing high quality content for the publication or press that they ultimately for, so they’re invested in (and work to promote) my success.
  • Working with an editor takes the pressure of sole-authorship off my shoulders. While my name is (most of the time) still the one that appears on the cover or byline, I’m no longer solely responsible for how my writing turns out. It becomes a collaborative endeavour, and one that benefits from multiple perspectives and sets of eyeballs.
  • I’m working with consummate professionals who know and are good at their jobs. Academia doesn’t always do a great job of training us for key parts of faculty jobs (most parts of faculty jobs, some would argue), and editing (which is a part of grading, peer review, and providing feedback on thesis and dissertation writing) is certainly one of those things. I trust my editors quite a lot, and I know that they’ve been trained–both academically and on the job–to elicit from me the best writing I’m capable of giving them, in the most productive (which often means kind and generous) way possible.
  • My editors make my work so much better. It is such a surprising pleasure to write something that I’m already happy with, then have it come back to me tighter, more elegant, more on the nose, better structured. Often my editors are only suggesting minor tweaks, but they’re changes that I couldn’t see my way to on my own and that make a world of difference to the effectiveness and style my work.

What about you, dear readers? How are you feeling about the editors in your lives, good and bad? How can we do better at teaching people to give and receive useful criticism in academia?

advice · book · from dissertation to book · research · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Academic Book Publishing Resources

If you’re anything like me (and many of the PhDs I know), your first instinct when facing a problem–in this case it’s “how the hell do I get my dissertation published?”–is to research it. Me too. And I’ll save you a step! If you’re looking for helpful books, articles, and webinars on writing your book proposal and getting your manuscript published, you’ve come to the right place.





Know of any great resources that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
#alt-ac · dissertation · from dissertation to book · writing

Why I Want to Publish My Dissertation (Even Though I’ll Never Be a Professor)

When I decided in 2012 that I’d never go on the faculty job market, progress on my dissertation stalled for, oh, three years. Sure, I took a demanding job in research administration not long after, which made dissertation writing harder in practical terms. But my real issue with dissertation writing was psychological. Without a good reason to finish this proto-book I was pretty sure no one was ever going to read, I couldn’t find the motivation to make progress on it. Sitting down to write was mental torture.

After I’d been in research administration for a couple of years, I came to the conclusion that while I didn’t care all that much about finishing my dissertation for its own sake, having the PhD as a credential was going to be necessary for the career path I was envisioning for myself. I moved into a similar but less overwhelming job with a walking commute (which helped a ton), and over the course of the next year I finished writing the last two thirds of my dissertation. All told, it took me almost exactly eight years to get my PhD: I started the program the day after Labour Day in 2008 and I defended four days after Labour Day in 2016.

It’s been six months since I defended, and after a long period of waffling, I’m actively pursuing the publication of my dissertation. One press is awaiting my proposal with interest, and I’ve got conversations in progress with another. The proposal will go out by the end of the month (I’m writing both it and this post on a little DIY writing retreat I put together in mid-March), and we’ll see what happens from there. I’m a little surprised that this is a path I’m going down, because like finishing my dissertation, I was resistant to the idea of publishing it for a long time.

It’s not the idea of holding a book I’ve written in my hands that I don’t like. In fact, I like the idea quite a lot–I got to do it recently with this beauty, and it feels awfully nice. It’s the idea of reentering the dysfunctional and exploitative academic systems that I purposefully removed myself from when I decided not to become a professor. I will perform a frankly offensive amount of unpaid labour to get this book out, labour that won’t even be compensated by academic capital that I can use on the job market. (I’ll have it, but I have no need or place to use it.) The press and editors I work with will be underpaid for all of their work. The book, if it does really well, might sell 500 copies. It will be too expensive for most people to buy, and the university librarians I so respect and love will have to balance purchasing it against their shrinking budgets and the demand to buy ever more expensive science journals. It might come out in paperback eventually, which will help make it more accessible, but people will likely have forgotten all about it by the time it does.

So why am I doing it, given all of these good reasons not to?

It turns out that I care enough about this research–this person, really, as I write about one woman, poet, publisher, and professor Jay Macpherson–to make all of that not matter. Macpherson came to Canada as a refugee in 1940. She was part of what we now know as the ‘war guest’ program, the one that placed British children who were in danger of being killed or injured by German bombs in Canadian foster homes. Separated from her family, not well treated by her foster family, terribly lonely, and terrified about the fate of a world that seemed on the verge of apocalypse (is this sounding familiar?), she started to write. And her poems helped her–and can help us–think through how we deal with living under the threat of annihilation, our culpability as members of a society that ignores and abuses children, what happens when we don’t see ourselves in the books we read, what its like to navigate one’s own queer desire in a heteronormative and patriarchal society. Perhaps most importantly, Macpherson wrote her way to a place where her poems became a gateway to a better imagined world, one where finding the common roots of our stories, myths, languages, and loves could break down the barriers that lead to violence, war, alienation, death.

Macpherson’s poems weren’t always so hopeful. After the loss of a great love (which I think was a combination of a total loss of poetic inspiration and the end of her relationship with Northrop Frye), she went silent for nearly twenty years. Her second (and last) major collection, Welcoming Disaster, calls upon her old myths and some new ones to think through how to rebuild one’s world after a personal sort of apocalypse. And yet, despite everything she suffered–being abandoned, abused, marginalized as a woman scholar and poet, cut off from her gifts–she never became wholly disillusioned. If anything, Macpherson turned her energies even more strongly toward using her verse to make the world better, to helping those with less love or power or hope than she had. She spent the latter part of her career mostly writing political poetry and protest songs aim at righting the wrongs she saw in the world.

It was the fifth anniversary of Macpherson’s death yesterday, and it’s time for more people to know these stories than me, to absorb them into their own personal mythologies and use them, as Macpherson did, to remake the world in new and better forms. That might not be very many people, given the reach of an academic monograph, but I want it to be more people than just my committee and me.

And that’s why, despite the fact that I’ll never be a tenure-track professor and there are all sorts of reasons not to, I want to publish my dissertation.

(Thanks to Lisa Munro, who is also doing the same kinds of thinking, for inspiring this post.)

academic reorganization · Audre Lorde · feminist communities · guest post · writing

Guest post: It’s Personal

by Marie Carrière

I am on a half-sabbatical leave from my university. And lo and behold, I am working on a book! In a nutshell, my reflection focuses on our present, or late, feminist moment that I call metafeminism. Here is how I am defining metafeminism: I find the idea ensconced in the prefix meta central to understanding this moment; it delineates the reflections and deflections of the several recognizable faces of feminism with which Western culture has grown familiar. Such vacillation of feminism’s tropes, waves, and manifestations is at the heart of my understanding of metafeminism.

But I want to slow down, and I want to write differently.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that revolutionary feminist theory – meant to inform masses of people and transform the societies we live in – is not, ironically enough, readily available or accessible to a non academic public. It “remains a privileged discourse,” hooks writes, “available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged.” This is more than a fair point. But unlike hooks’ work here, my essay cannot claim to address anybody other than those already with an interest in feminist thought and writing. I cannot claim nor do I want to pretend that the book I’m writing is not an academically driven project. It stems from my long-standing research into contemporary feminism, especially of the late twentieth century and new millennium. But I am looking to break with the monographic tradition that continues to render so much academic writing, including my own, relevant only to… academic reading and yet more academic writing… I look to also speak to skilled readers and certainly to students curious about feminism’s trajectories through thought and literature.

Of course I am not writing in a generic vacuum with no history. The French essai is a literary genre of writing that comes close to what I have in mind for my book. I’m not sure that “essay” is the most accurate English equivalent. But for now, I’ll take it, with a few qualifications. The online Larousse defines the French term essai as follows:

ouvrage regroupant des réflexions diverses ou traitant un sujet qu’il ne prétend pas épuiser; genre littéraire constitué par ce type d’ouvrages […] action entreprise en vue de réaliser, d’obtenir quelque chose, sans être sûr du résultat ; tentative.

This definition appeals to me. Not only does it help me understand how I might distance my work from the comprehensiveness of the standard academic monograph. It helps me imagine how a personalized (but not, in my case, intimate or confessional) academic essay might take shape and give rise to a different form of scholarly writing.

Simply put, how might I say I in my academic writing?

So “simply put,” that when I read out this last sentence to S., my 13-year old daughter, she replied, “It’s not hard, Maman. We learn that in first grade.”

What I haven’t yet explained to S. is that figuring out how to say I, as a woman, within the academy, even from a tenured, white, cis gender privileged position like my own, is not that simple. Although writing in the first person as a woman will not, of course, automatically produce more accessible scholarship, I still hope that in this essay it might give rise to a different form of scholarly writing. How might I say I in an academic book project and write from a place of intellectual feeling, of literary sensation, and of feminist care? How might I tap into what Audre Lorde describes as a “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’?”

Ann Cvetkovich’s remarkable 2012 book, Depression: A Public Feeling is, unlike my own, partly written in the form of the academic memoir, laying out her personal struggle with depression. Of note is what I would call the metafeminist “rapprochement with legacies of 1970s feminism such as consciousness-raising, personal narrative, and craft” that Cvetkovich recognizes in her blending of memoir and criticism. As in metafeminism, there are in fact multiple sites of influence in Cvetkovich’s work. She also acknowledges the legacy of a generation of feminists including bell hooks, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jane Gallop who have continued the trend of personal academic writing. And she harks back to the influence of a more marginal feminist confessional zine culture of the early 1990s.

And so, perhaps that’s the big deal (with affection, ma fille): I too would like my own personalized essay to be a kind of rapprochement to these different expressions of feminist thought. To recall a context closer to home, the fiction theories (or fictions théoriques) practiced by feminist and queer Québécois writers in the 1970s (Bersianik, Brossard, Théoret) and their Anglo-Canadian counterparts in the 1980s (Brandt, Marlatt, Tostevin) also serve as my models.

(A girl can dream, especially during a thought experiment.)

I discovered these texts during my undergraduate studies in my early twenties, delving deeper into them in graduate school. Bringing together anglophone and francophone influences has allowed this bilingual feminist room to dream across borders and boundaries. In a sense, these texts have been my feminist super-egos, my propédeutique to literary understanding, my entry into feminist ethics. With their blend of female subjectivity, feeling, creative reflection, and aesthetic experimentation, these authors started to write at an exceptional time in Québécois and Canadian literature, which I examined in my first book (a monograph!). Since then, some, though not numerous, Canadian works of more recent personal criticism by women (Lee Maracle, Catherine Mavrikakis, Andrea Oberhuber, or Erin Wunker) have followed in this vein. Finally, just as Cvetkovich’s turn to the confessional in her critical work on affect fittingly sets out to raise public consciousness through the expression of personal experience and emotion, my own personalized essay, like metafeminism, hopes to fittingly oscillate between various manifestations, or waves, of feminist theory and practice.

Further to the resistance of academic exhaustiveness in my adoption of the personalized essay is perhaps the issue of exhaustion itself. Attributing the appeal of personal memoir in criticism to humanities scholarship’s affective turn (Clough; Gregg and Seigworth), Cvetkovich entertains the idea of personalized academic writing “as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life.” I find the idea very provocative. But I’m also a bit loathe to pigeonhole theory in those terms. I refuse to believe that theory is exhausting, exhausted, or even exhaustive.

Theory, I try to reassure my students (to a variable degree of success), is just theory: a thought experiment, a set of principles, a string of ideas; it’s always historical with a material context, and to an attentive reader willing to take a few risks and work a little harder, it should be no more daunting than any other narrative. But I do think there is room for deeper thinking about why more open forms of theoretical writing, that draw from intimate experience and personal understanding, might be apt at this time in feminist, indeed metafeminist, work. I’m thinking especially of theory that draws from intimate experience and personal understanding, and adopts a jargon-free, intelligible, fathomable language. In what is still a profoundly scholarly meditation on the socio-cultural aspects of depression, Cvetkovich’s book, particularly its “depression journals” segment, is as personal and readable as it is intellectually engaging.

This work also falls in line with other recent turns to academic memoir, such as Maggie Nelson’s brilliant feminist “autotheory” in The Argonauts, at the heart of which she traces her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, her experience of queer pregnancy, and her realization that pregnancy is queer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal essay We Should All be Feminists, adapted from her TEDx talks of the same title, is in turn an attempt to free feminism from stereotypical notions that Adichie grew up with in Nigeria and still encounters in American culture. (And this is before that orange fuckface entered politics.) Wunker in turn writes, in her own words, at the “interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking” in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She posits her use of the pronoun I as a personal and intellectual gesture of positioning herself, textually and socially, as a white privileged woman writing about feminism in Canada today. Most recent is Sara Ahmed’s highly anticipated, Living a Feminist Life, an academic memoir that Ahmed began to construct through her ongoing blog,

To my mind, these works are not exhibiting theoretical exhaustion. They are brazen, filled with admirable feminist boldness, as they pursue the more open forms of writing that may, from a neoliberal standpoint, be slowing them down, and that the neoliberal university may not be ready to fully acknowledge. But these are forms that feminism today – whether intersectional, queer, or oriented around affect studies – fully warrants. Given the accumulation of its multiple variables and directions, metafeminism, to hark back to hooks’ argument, “needs to be written in a range of styles and formats.” I would love to continue to see feminist writing that loosens, as do the works mentioned above, age-old boundaries separating the academic and the personal, or the scholarly and the accessible. I believe such efforts can address the need for stylistic diversity and enrich both a common reading experience and a more specialized scholarly one.

It’s difficult not to notice as well the early second-wave mantra of “the personal is political” being powerfully re-invoked by works like Nelson’s or Cvetkovich’s. Hence my argument that my book, my personalized essay is an attempt, my attempt, at a metafeminist form of academic writing. This project is also an attempt to figure out how my scholarly learning, which is always in process, can breathe life, or let life breathe, into forms of expression that fall outside of strict or standard academic norms of writing. Finally, and maybe this is (too) brazen on my own part, but could these personalized moments in my writing be a form of queering such norms? Through Nelson’s own take, I recall Sedgwick’s controversial notion of queer as encompassing various kinds of disruptions and subversions. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant […] relational, and strange,” writes Sedgwick, to which Nelson adds:

She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder – a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.

Meanwhile, Sedgwick also acknowledged the danger of dematerializing the term through this removal of “same-sex sexual expression” from queer’s “definitional center.” As Nelson again adds: “In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” (29).

That’s what metafeminism, by the way, is all about: reflecting and deflecting; having it both ways.

Writing about feminism today, at least for me, craves a suppler form than the monograph allows. One that’s less exhaustive and less exhaustible, one that’s fugitive perhaps, and maybe even queer. One that wants it both ways. To write, then, an academic personalized essay. To take the unfinished wave of a scholarly attempt, and to chase the tides of feminism’s first, second, third, and even fourth movements in the texts of Canadian women writers today. Maybe a personalized essay is the only form possible for an academic study of metafeminism. Vast and extensive in historicity as well as content, metafeminism encompasses what has been referred to for some time as feminisms in the plural; it denotes those shifting parts of sexual, racial, gender, and trans identities articulated beyond the normative categories of a very old and very persistent patriarchal tradition. Perhaps metafeminism’s breadth, multidirectional texture, and ambivalences, indeed its queerness, already resist the monograph – the highly detailed, authoritative, legitimized account of a single thing.

Perhaps only the essai personnalisé, with its open process and its desire to give academic discipline the slip, will do.

Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta where she also teaches literature in English and in French. Her most recent publication is a critical anthology co-edited with Curtis Gillespie and Jason Purcell, Ten Canadian Writers in Context.