Thursday, November 5, 2009

Professional Interview #6: Martha, Contract Writer

This was my first tape-recorded interview; thanks to Scott for the loan of the recorder. Things I learned this time: that it is more interesting to look at the interviewee instead of at the screen/page, that conversation flows better when you don't have to stop to scribble things down, but that transcription is no fun. But this interview was fun and Martha's experiences are fascinating. I hope you enjoy! [I'm in bold, she's in Roman.]

Can you tell us your job title?

At that time, I was the contract writer; that was what was on my invoices.

And that was what you saw in the job posting?

There wasn't a job posting. I was actually approached because I had worked on a previous institutional history for OISE, which is the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, because they were celebrating their 100th year. So I did some writing, a lot of research, fact-checking, sourced images…was on the editorial board. [The book project people] had actually looked at that publication and they liked that and then approached me to work on their history.

Ok, then, go back a step: how did you get to the OISE project?

I started when I was still a student at UofT, in the Information Studies degree (with a specialization in Archival Science) and basically I knew a lot of people because I wanted to see what the potential jobs were like. I was friendly with one of the archivists at UofT and someone approached her to work on the OISE project, and she said, “Well, Martha’s really cool and really keen. Why don’t you talk to her?”

I first started doing…a file transfer to the UofT Archives from the Faculty, and then while I was there, they started working on their centennial and they said, “Hey! Why don’t we just have Martha stay and she could do some research for us, and sort some photos, because she’s an archivist and that would really be helpful to have onboard.” Then, because I was so interested in the whole book process, they said, “Ok, why don’t you be on the editorial board and write some of the in-between pieces.” So I did that.

Did you love it?

I did. I really really loved it. Because it was a huge team. The book was actually a compilation of a whole bunch of faculty members’ experiences there over the hundred years. So I got to work with them, and edit all of their personal accounts and then try to fill in a lot of the blanks for someone who didn’t really know a lot about the faculty. So I was learning a lot about various experiences and the overall process and it was nice to be a part of that.

So that was a team book?

Yes, I was a “contributer,” with a lot of other contributers.

I see! So, for the subsequent project, The Michener Institute, 1958 to 2008, the First 50 Years, was that your book?

Basically, yes. When I started, I was the only one with book experience as I was the only who had actually done a book before, and I had done one. I was on the Board with a whole bunch of other people, including an institutional historian who had done a thesis on the beginnings of the Institute because it had complete changed how medical technologists were trained in Ontario… He had done a chapter, [which] was just supposed to be like a little pamphlet. I looked at it and I said, “Wow, this could be something really big, this could be a really great story.”

I thought that it needed an outsider’s voice, because it read like they were talking to themselves, and I knew that’s not what they wanted. They wanted it to be something that other people would find interesting. So I told them that I thought the tone needed to change and that it needed to be expanded, and then my roles expanded.

I gave them a draft of what I thought could become a chapter. And from there, I worked with the institutional historian who knew a lot of the details of the place. I would take his ideas and his research and try to make the material a bit more accessible [and] tell a bit more of a coherent story.

Was it at this point that it became your full-time job?

Yes. I was working on it on the weekends for a few months, while was working [at another job]… So I did some work on it on the bus. But when I finished that contract …I worked full-time on this for…six or seven months.

Did they give you an office at the Michener?

No. There was a little desk with a computer behind some books in the library where I worked a little, but mainly I would do my research and then I would go home or somewhere else [to write].

Can you describe a typical day during that six months? Or was there a typical day?

There weren’t very many typical days. Most days, I would try to get up and have some sort of a normal schedule so that I didn’t get off the project, because I had to learn a lot to make this [text] make sense not only to me but to someone who has very little understanding. Most mornings I would do a little bit of research. Then if I had an interview with someone, I would go do the interview, then come back and transcribe. And then after a research day, the next day I would try to do a lot of writing.

We should talk about the interview process, since the reason I got interested in interviewing you/Martha is because she/you know(s) how to do this professionally. So I would like to talk about how you set them up and what your process would be to prepare, and then how it would go.

Because [the book covered only] 50 years, a lot of the people whose roles were important in the growth the institution, [the current staff] still knew them, or they were still working there. So it was very easy for me to find people to talk to…. Once I found out what they did, I had to do some research on what that actually meant, so that I could ask more intelligent questions, and so that I would understand the progression of programs and the expansion of the student body and all that kind of stuff. And then, most of the time I would go to where they worked…. They were practitioners in hospitals and that sort of thing and I really wanted to see what that felt like….I spent a lot of time in hospitals.

Usually, I tried to divide the interviews between things that I felt I knew already and things that I knew I didn’t know [but] that they would have expertise in. I wanted to get some specific answers, but I also wanted to get their impressions of the place and of the profession, because that’s what I really wanted to bring to the book. Those sort of personal anecdotes are sometimes really hard to get.

How structured were your notes going in to the interview?

I definitely had a list, because I wanted there to be some consistency across the interviews. There were 5 questions that I asked of everyone, hoping that there would be some themes that would emerge from that. But I also knew that there were specifics that I had to ask and I would list those. Then I would have a separate list of “probatives” where I hoped they would get off on a bit more of a tangent with their personal feelings.

How amenable were people to this process?

Because I also had a recorder sometimes people said, “I will tell you that when you turn this off.” And I said, “Ok, but you still know that as part of the transcript that’s going to be in there.” And they still said, “Yes, that’s fine, I just don’t want this on [tape].” And I said, “Well, am I allowed to use it?” … There were a few people [that said no], but after I had heard what they didn’t want recorded…I was able to say, “So how did that affect this other big thing,” and then I was allowed to use that material. I really had to try to scooch around it. But it was fun to hear about those kind of problematic relationships within the institutions, which every institution has, it’s not a new thing.

Historical gossip.

Exactly. I actually feel like having those sorts of stories helped even if I couldn’t use them word for word. They really helped shape how I felt about the project.

…Did you have oversight straight along, or did you complete a draft and then show it?

There were a lot of [chapter] drafts and each draft went to the Board. There were about 6 people on the board. Then when it all came together, we looked at as a complete thing and understood where there were pieces missing.

So it was a collaborative effort?

Yes. I think that it had to be, not because of the writing but because of the topic, because it was supposed to be something that really speaks to the institution, and those who are involved in the institution know the political issues, know what their future plans are. This needed to fit in with those ideals, which I wouldn’t know. So it had to be collaborative at the end, definitely.

But was it treated as your project that they were helping you make good?

No. I think that that’s OK for what they wanted, I don’t think that that’s the ideal for moving forward with a project like this. I think it’s important [when working on] a history, for the people who were actually involved in that history to step back and let the story be told from someone outside’s perspective. I think they gain something more from that. Again, I think there’s a tendency to talk to yourself and talk to your colleagues and not want to branch out at all. I think that they wanted to branch but they didn’t know how… So at the end it became a bit more, “This is our community and we want to keep it this way,” instead of saying, “This is a really great story about the history of Toronto, the history of Ontario, and of the profession in general, and it should be known.”

So, do you have plans for next time? Would you like to do another project?

Yes, yes, I would love to do another project. Because I know all the pitfalls: that I really need to stand up for myself as the writer as opposed to just part of a team, because I think that the writer is separate. Although there definitely needs to be that collaboration at some point, the writer should be in charge of that creative process. It’s really difficult to have a successful and real creative work when there are so many people giving their opinions all of the time.

So, when this project was winding down, I know you went on to something very different, what were you thinking jobwise, careerwise?

I really wanted there to be another book project after that, so I actually waited a few months after the project was finished, because it was quite hectic near the end…But then there was nothing coming, so then I had to get a real job. [laughter] So now I’m a fulltime archivist.

Can you put a lot of the lessons you learned in that project into the work that you do now?

Ye-es. But it really makes me want to go back and do more books. Because I feel that it takes my archival training and my writing tendencies and creates this lovely little relationship between them. There are so many really neat true stories to be told, that can be told in a creative and interesting way, and I really love to do that.


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