WhatsApp and Hand-Tats: My Brief History with Writing Groups

I gave the following talk as part of the 18th Annual Pacific Authors Celebration on 13 April 2017. It was hosted by the Pacific University Libraries and presented alongside an exhibit in the Forest Grove Library Gallery.

Thank you all for coming today. I want to share some brief words with you about WhatsApp, hand tattoos, and how my writing has been positively affected by collaborating with others. This will be in three parts.

Shakespeare, the Rubber Stamp

Collaboration is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name, “Shakespeare”—the proverbial rubber stamp for “high art” and “literary genius.” I guess that makes me not a very good Shakespearean. My scholarship is interested in the collaborative work of theatre-makers in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England—the period when typecasting was a good thing because it meant that, as an actor, you could hold twenty variations of the same kind of character in your head at a time, and, as a playwright, you specialized in writing kinds of scenes rather than whole plays alone. Based on the evidence of three staged readings in the late 1500s, I really hope this all happened at a bar.

There are real stakes to collaboration aside from upsetting our current literary culture’s priority on singular authorship. In 1597, playwright Thomas Nashe barely escaped arrest for his supposedly radical play, “The Isle of Dogs”—now lost. (Ben Jonson and three other actors weren’t so lucky.) Pamphlets circulated calling for the trimming of Nashe’s ears as punishment. Nashe called his play an “unfortunate imperfect Embrion” that “was no sooner borne but [he] was glad to run from it”—a sentiment about invention and revision I think any writer might commiserate with. Part of his trouble may have been with his critics’ misunderstanding of the theatrical composition process, which, with few exceptions, was inherently collaborative. Nashe tried to make the point clear, arguing that “I hauing begun but the induction and first act of it, the other four acts without my consent, or the least guess of my drift or scope, by the players were supplied, which bred both their trouble and mine.” My work in the period, as well as with original practice theatre companies such as the Back Room Shakespeare Project and the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival here in Portland, make clear the necessity and the risks that come by playing with others.

Island to Island

That my rural Hawai’i education—where spelling was the last concern and where our pidgin vocabulary had more Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese, and WWII colloquialisms in it than recognizable English—made me insecure about my writing, is an understatement. Perhaps it makes some sense that I doubled-down on Humanities degrees to explore another island people whose language and spelling was also less-than-standardized. There is an implicit assumption that if you pursue the field of English, you don’t need help with your writing. My own personal insecurities were exacerbated by this assumption, until I started working in a writing center not unlike our CLIC. I had caught the bug: I had fallen in love as much with talking about writing as I had with sixteenth-century playhouses.

As a graduate student, I was fortunate to participate in a few fellowship programs that, first, put me in contact with peers across the country and the globe, and, second, gave me room to workshop our writing. Just last week, at the Shakespeare Association of America, I got BBQ with a group of women I did a research program with at Oxford and Rome in 2014. (In 2015, at the same conference in Vancouver, we realized we still liked each other, and so some of us left to get very nerdy hand tattoos of Elizabethan script.) At another fellowship program at Harvard, I met several scholars working in the U.K. and Australia, to whom I now send work regularly—typically Performance rather than Renaissance Studies. Through WhatsApp, we compare our schedules for when we can read, checked-in after the recent violence in London, and exchange good news. This morning, in fact, I heard from Cat, who just won a prestigious post-doc to work on Harold Pinter at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her family lives in Scotland, so she likes to send me photos when the television series Outlander is shooting in their area, knowing my side-work on Scottish and U.K. heritage filmmaking.

Hand-tattoos, reunited. 7 April 2017.

My history with writing groups started informally; it has become more formalized as I entered the profession. I was part of a weekly dissertation writing group for three years. We didn’t write together, really, but met on Fridays for doughnuts and to check-in about what goals we accomplished this week, set goals for the next, and solicit advice on a range of survival topics, such as: how to get what we needed from campus resources, funding opportunities, and advisors; how to have babies in grad school; how to support a transition from female to male; and debated the rhetorical priorities of conference paper, book chapter, and job document genres.

Now I am part of two groups. Our campus faculty writing group meets weekly to actively write together for a couple hours, and has all-day retreats once or twice a semester, generously funded by several of the deans and school directors. (I wrote this with them!) The other is a gChat (or Google Hangouts) group comprised of women that I’ve met at conferences and fellowships. While we live in Virginia, Minnesota, Canada, and Kentucky, we meet once or twice a semester online to catch-up and workshop one of our articles-in-progress. Occasionally, I’ll participate in #writingaccountability Wednesday with other folks on Twitter, stating goals at the top of the day, and then checking in sporadically for support and focus—and sometimes just music recommendations. While certainly we all need, as Virginia Woolf put it, a room of one’s own to write and think, I’m inspired also by sharing that room with others.

Playing with Others

Aside from my intellectual investments in the collaborative, these groups have been crucial for my identity as a scholar and teacher. They have given me the chance to engage with early-career women in Shakespeare Studies, an intensely male-driven field. Again, as an example, due to the epic man-‘splaining that can happen at the tables of the annual luncheon of the Shakespeare Association of America, a small splinter group of female scholars started organizing a table to sit together a few years back. This year, there were nearly seventy of us taking up a quarter of the ballroom and a dozen tables. In fact, all the groups I have been in have primarily comprised women, celebrated each other’s successes with food and drink, and actualized and validated writing as a process rather than a product.

The results have been rather breathtaking. I got a job. I published three articles in my first year at that job. One of them has now won two prizes for scholarly research from the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and the international Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society. Such success has given me the courage to collaborate in other ways with practitioners of Shakespeare, perhaps the most minority voice in the study of these plays. Doing so not only unsettles the myth about the scholar squirreling away alone in an ivory tower, but to leave the tower completely.

Thank you.

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