In which the Apathy Monster is curtailed

Me, lately

I spent my PhD years going to many, many conferences. When you’re in a small department in an isolated part of the world, they’re kind of a necessity. You go to meet anyone – anyone – who is doing similar stuff, and who won’t stare at you blankly when you describe your research. You go to try out your ideas, to make sure the academic community you’ll be pitching them to don’t think you’re an absolute waste of space (imposter syndrome is for real). Also, you go just to go somewhere (though I think I went to Leicester far too often).

In the last few years, as I’ve gained contacts and confidence, I’ve gone to fewer and fewer conferences. I know the ones that best suit me now, and where I’ll get to meet and/or catch up with my peeps. I also know the ones, of course, where I’ve never made any headway at all.

I was pleasantly surprised this week to be wrong about that last one.

MIX Digital – Bath Spa University

Let me back this on up. I’ve presented at two conferences in the last two weeks. The first of which was the MIX Digital 2017 Conference at Bath Spa University. It’s the second time I’ve made it to this conference, and I’m always glad I do. It’s a conference with a great mix of researchers, practitioners, and industry folks, and most are based in the UK. The mix means there are a lot of ideas floating around from a lot of different perspectives, which is refreshing for someone who, like I said, is relatively isolated.

This time, I brought three of my PhD students in tow, all presenting at their first conference. I was really pleased with both their presentations and their receptions, and glad they got the opportunity to chat with others and discover Twitter and know that they are not all alone in the research world.

ELO – Porto, Portugal

The second conference was the Electronic Literature Organization Conference in Porto, Portugal. I’ve been affiliated with the ELO since the very early days of my PhD, when they awarded me an editorship of the Electronic Literature Directory. I’ve been presenting at ELO conferences since 2012, but here’s the thing: even though I’ve had tickets on the ELO train since the beginning, I have deliberately hopped on a different train, one that I thought had diverged enough that it wasn’t going to cross tracks with the ELO anymore.

Because of this divergence, I haven’t had the best luck with the ELO or its affiliated journal the electronic book review in the last few years. I know why, and it’s been down to my choices:

  1. My research methods are unorthodox.
  2. My creative work is pedestrian.
And yeah, both of those are my choice. Research in literature and narrative has traditionally been kept carefully separate from creative practice; writers who are also academics publish their creative work, and then do research on other people’s work (in my work on practice-based research, this is called “practice-and-research“). Obviously the creative practice will influence the way the research is conducted, and give insight into the work, but the practitioner is expected to keep their creative work out of it.
I don’t do that. I’m interested in creative process, in writer cognition, in narrative-writer-reader interactions. I ask questions that can be answered only by doing the creative work, not by applying post-textual analysis to someone else’s work.
So it’s not surprising that a lot of journals and publishers don’t know what to do with my research. I come up against this a lot. It was just that the ebr was the first to officially pooh-pooh my methods, and given the great relationships I have with the editors, that one stung. Plus, in trying to plead my case, I presented my methodology at the 2015 conference, which landed with a resounding thud.
(Don’t feel bad for me – that thud urged me on and my work has had great success in other outlets.)
On the second point: my creative work is pedestrian. I’m good with that; I do it deliberately. I’m not a poet, lyricist, or artist. I like stories. I like stories where the writing and the form don’t get in the way. I know – why write digital fiction, then? Isn’t it all just faffing with form for the sake of playing with a cool new toy? 
To a certain extent, sure. But I mostly think that the novelty is not going to last long. Pretty soon, digital stories will be de rigeur – and when that very near day comes, we need to be able to tell the stories in them well. We need to be able to utilize the medium for maximum effect and potential. And hell, we need to be able to make a living. No one makes a living on experimental writing; plenty of people, however, make livings on just good fucking storytelling. 
A precious few innovate while they do it. But just a little. Just enough that our human-novelty-pleasure center is toggled, and not so much that we get lost. And that’s my aim. To be innovative enough to be interesting, and to be pedestrian enough so that my audience is not lost.
But for the ELO, that means my work is…pedestrian. It’s not going to win any prizes or be selected for exhibitions. So I don’t win brownie points on that front, either.
All of this is a very long intro to my surprising report on the ELO conference in Porto this week. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t plan on going. Then a couple of colleagues contacted me and asked me to be on a panel with them, and I figured, what the hell. I’ve never been to Portugal – I’ll do the panel, catch up with a couple of people, then play tourist the rest of the conference.
Which, honestly, is what I did. I was a terrible conference attendee. Blame it on the bad taste left in my mouth from my 2015 experience, blame it on the tits-in-the-dirt morale inspired by the current state of HE in the UK and my institution in general, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care. Apathy struck me with a capital WHATEVS.
I made it in for at least half a day every day, went to the panels I was interested in, chatted a bit with people (and especially my awesome and amazing former supervisor, in all the way from Canada!), but generally wandered off into Porto otherwise.
I’d volunteered to chair the panels that were actually of relevance to me, just to force me and my apathy to go to them. I’m so glad I did. They were fantastic, and somehow, after all this time, I seem to have found my people. They basically adopted me, inviting me out to dinner and drinks and the like. It was like a record scratch from “It’s a Hard Knock Life” to “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.”
And then…THEN…
Saturday’s rock star keynote cited me. Like, by name. Like, in the context of everything I’ve been ranting about for years: that e-lit needs to go a little punk, needs to break some shackles, needs to actually pick up some fans outside our little avant-garde circles.
Of course, I wasn’t there. I was on a boat. I learned about it via Twitter, like all things in life now. I’m hoping that made me at least a little bit punk.
Anyway, I’ve come away from both of these conferences with some great new friends, and maybe a touch less apathy. Certainly, I feel a lot more confident about the work I’m doing, both academically and creatively.
Until next year.

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