I first “met” Caroline Grant when I was columnist at Literary Mama and clicked with her immediately. She was smart and funny and deep and a terrific writer. When I went out to San Francisco for Tillie Olsen’s memorial the year before last, I met her in person. We had brunch at this amazing breakfast place in East Berkeley. During that brunch she talked about the Mama PhD book and I thought it sounded like a GREAT idea and here it is.. One of the miracles of publishing, an idea transforming into something you can hold in your hands. Astounds me every time. Please join me in welcoming Caroline and Elrena and then click on Amazon and buy the book!
Today, Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans write about editing their new anthology, Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, which has been called “easily the most important piece of work to date on academics and family issues, full-stop.” The anthology voices stories of academic women choosing to have, not have, or delay children, and its essays speak to and offer support for any woman attempting to combine work and family.
3,000 Miles, Two Writers, One Book
Meet over email. Of course; you live, after all, 3,000 miles apart, but it helps our relationship get into writing right away. We are literally words on a page (screen) to each other for the first year of our collaboration (we don’t even talk on the phone!) It doesn’t hurt that we meet via Elrena’s submission to the section of Literary Mama that Caroline is editing at the time.
Meet when one of you is pregnant. This helps get the conversation personal, pronto, as Caroline cautions Elrena that she might not get back to her very promptly with edits.
Don’t always stick to the point. We know we are both writers, and mothers, and if we’d stayed on topic it might have stayed at that. Instead, we digress into breastfeeding and parenting and graduate school and ivory tower life — and friendship. And then, ultimately, a book.
Write about what matters to you. This is old advice, but it’s still good. Elrena was on medical leave from graduate work and thinking she might want to write about mothering and dissertating. Caroline had left the ivory tower behind when her first son was born, but was still frequently looking back and second-guessing her decision. Writing about our choices seems like a good way to figure out if they are the right choices for us. (Caroline can now say yes with assurance; Elrena’s still up in the air but has decided that’s okay for now; up in the air is still a place, after all).
Invite others to join the conversation. At a certain point, it’s always good to share your thoughts with others. We figure if we have so much to say about our lives in and out of academia, other women might, too. They might even have advice or ideas on how to make it better. We write up a call for submissions and spread the word. To our amazement and delight, essays came pouring in.
Punt! Write until you’ve lost your way, or stop making sense, and then email your draft to your collaborator. If you’re lucky (we always were) she will make what you wrote sound better, add some more, and then send it back to you for refining. You will smile when you read what she’s added: ah, yes — that is what I meant to say.
Are you deep in the book project now? Time to have another baby! We pause for the arrival of Elrena’s son.
Agree on everything. When we were in graduate school, we sat through innumerable training sessions with our peers, learning how to mark essays and score exams until we all worked from the same rubric and our responses all agreed. It was a useful process, but one we don’t happen to think of this time around. We read all of the submissions independently (3,000 miles apart and four kids, remember?), marking them Yes, No, and Maybe. When we are done, we exchange our lists and see that we only disagree on one essay. We send it back and forth for a while, and soon both feel right about our decision.
Meet! A year into the project, Caroline realizes her Christmas travels will bring her within a couple hours drive of Elrena’s home. “In my ideal world,” she emails, “there’d be an aquarium or something equidistant from your house and where I’m staying, and we could all gather and you and I could start 5 or 10 different conversations and maybe finish three sentences while we run around after the kids!” Elrena emails back the URL of the New Jersey State Aquarium, exactly one hour’s drive for each of us. Ask, and you shall receive. So now we can attach voices and faces—of ourselves and our husbands and kids—to our writing.
Return to work with fresh energy after the meeting. Keep it light. Pepper your emails with exclamation points and smiley faces, just in case. Always put your families first. Sympathize about everything, big and little: the rejection letter, the sleepless night, the husband’s work hours, the emergency room visit. Celebrate milestones: publications, toilet training, landing an agent, birthdays, editorial promotions, weaning.
Send the book proposal out to nearly a dozen publishers. Receive many rejections and two good offers. And it only takes one. Effortlessly agree on the publisher, talking on the phone while one set of kids splashes in the baby pool and the other set makes and serves an elaborate play-doh dinner. Sign a contract. Marvel at how different your signatures are.
Knock yourselves out to fine-tune essays, trying to draw out the best in each writer, then fact check and copyedit. Negotiate the contracts of 40 contributors, many of whom become friends, also. Learn how to use Google docs to keep things organized. Work during naptimes, typing with one hand while nursing, at 5 AM before the family awakes, and on weekend afternoons while your husband and kids go to the zoo. Always feel like the other one is doing more work, and wonder how she does it. Feel grateful, because you know she feels the same way.
Just when you think you’re done, receive one last, significant editorial suggestion. Start to lose the plot. “But it’s perfect!” one of you cries. “It is perfect,” the other agrees; “but we’ll make it even better.” And you do.
Wait for publication day. Be surprised by a package on the doorstep a month earlier than you are expecting. Page through the book, pausing over well-remembered passages that still read so well, but look a lot better in their new home. Show the kids where you dedicated the book to them. Grab a tissue as your newest readers carefully spell out their names.