Elizabeth Comack has published thirteen books but tells me that she doesn’t identify as a writer. “I can remember being in McNally Robinson around 1996 not long after [Comack’s book] Women in Trouble came out. I was in the women’s section and Carol Shields was standing next to me … and I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Look, there’s my book right there!’ But I didn’t. She’s a writer, I’m not really a writer. That was the feeling that I had.” This is common, it seems, among writers — not feeling like you can really wear the title, not sure that your work truly qualifies you as a writer — but it’s safe to say that Elizabeth has met the standard. She is a Distinguished Professor Emerita from the University of Manitoba, and she’s taught criminology (specifically, the sociology of law and feminist criminology) for over forty years. She’s also my mom. You may think I’m little biased in saying this, but trust me, the woman is a damn good writer.
Despite the fact that she spent hours in the basement of her family home playing “classroom” with a blackboard and imaginary students, Elizabeth never really had it in mind to go into education. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology, and afterward applied to a variety of jobs in criminal justice, including the Winnipeg Police Service (then called the “Winnipeg Police Force”), as they had just started hiring women (this was the 1970s, after all). She was shortlisted, and told me about her experience being interviewed by the Deputy Chief of Police, who sat across from her, chain-smoking DuMaurier cigarettes, and told her, “You know a man will do a better job than you, right?” She didn’t make it past the interview process — she wasn’t “assertive” enough — although now sees that as a blessing in disguise because she ended up to going back to university to do an honours degree. She enjoyed the process of university so much that she went on to complete a Master’s degree in sociology at Queen’s University in 1976 and a PhD in sociology at the University of Alberta in 1984. She took up her first academic position in the Sociology Department at the University of Winnipeg in 1979 and moved to the University of Manitoba in 1990.
The Deputy Chief of Police sat across from her, chain-smoking DuMaurier cigarettes, and told her, “You know a man will do a better job than you, right?”
Like other university professors, Elizabeth’s responsibilities comprised three main areas: 40% devoted to teaching; 20% to “service work,” like sitting on committees; and the last 40% to research and publishing. While just as much of her time must be applied to research as it is teaching, writing doesn’t get the acknowledgment it deserves. Elizabeth explained that as she made her way through her academic education, she received very little training in writing: “The first time I got real help with my writing, even just in terms of copy editing, was when I was doing my Master’s. Rick Gruneau was my advisor and he would actually edit my work. None of the courses that I took at university included writing as a process.” Coupled with that are the expectations placed on professors by the universities themselves. Each academic is expected to both teach courses and develop a program of research. And while it’s understood that they may not be publishing a book or several articles every year, there is an expectation to research, write, and publish, and those expectations are increasing all the time. Most people don’t understand that her job doesn’t end when the university term ends. “They think that come April university professors just start watching soaps all summer or something,” she said. “But really, the four months from the end of April to the beginning of September are when you get that chunk of time to really focus in on your research and your writing.”
While she didn’t have the benefit of formal writing or editing training, Elizabeth credits both her partner, Wayne Antony, and her long-time copy editor, Robert Clarke, and the fact that she reads so much of other scholars’ work, for her self-taught writing skills. “The more you read I think the better the writer you become, because it’s almost by osmosis,” she said. “You admire other people’s ways of putting sentences together and the kind of language that they use.” She also has some finicky tendencies — tendencies that she’s passed on to me — that give her a keen attention to detail. Whether she’s working on her own projects or marking students’ papers, having a “clean page” is necessary, so she’s become a hawk-eyed editor, telling me, “I can’t see the content until it’s clean.”
But Elizabeth isn’t just thinking about comma splices and sentence fragments when she writes. The kind of writing she works in — academic writing — is often dense and inaccessible. To counter this, Elizabeth writes with her readers in mind: her students. She thinks about what students can take away from her work, what they can learn about the people and concepts she’s describing. And being able to do that accessibly is a skill she prides herself in. One way to ensure her writing is clear has been to give her drafts to her now 98-year-old mother: “If she can read it and she can understand it — she’s an intelligent woman, but she doesn’t have formal university education — then I figure I’ve done my job.”
Another element of Elizabeth’s writing practise is the qualitative nature of her research. As a sociologist, she is interested in meeting with people, hearing their stories, and making sense of their lives. Specifically, she’s interested in understanding the ways in which systems like colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy have affected the lives of marginalized people, and how the effects of those systems can be mitigated. “The way I do that is to situate their lives within a broader social context,” she said, “[by] drawing out the impact that inequalities — like those around race, or class, or gender — have had in terms of contouring or constraining the choices that they’ve made.” The work Elizabeth does is focused on social justice, and the people she’s worked with have been criminalized or gang involved, have worked in the sex trade, or have become addicted to drugs or alcohol. “I mean, they’ve done some shitty things, they’ve done some violent things, they’ve done some things that most of them regret,” she said. “So, you could write up their stories to say ‘Oh look, these are really shitty people’, but I’d rather see the humanity in them and see them just as people who find themselves in circumstances that, more often than not, are not of their own choosing, and given the limited choices that they’ve had, this is what they’ve done. So, not to judge them, but to understand them.”
"How do you midwife other people’s stories? That’s a big responsibility, but that’s a key part of the writing."
“That’s a big challenge: how do you write that up? How do you midwife other people’s stories? That’s a big responsibility, but that’s a key part of the writing,” she explained. “How am I going to situate the stories, how am I going to tell the stories in a way that the reader can learn from their experiences?” Elizabeth’s goal is not for her readers to simply see people who have done bad things and need to be punished for them, but rather to understand the circumstances that the people she meets have found themselves in and their ways of navigating those circumstances. “One thing I’ve learned is that life is complicated. It’s really complex. We can say that about our own experiences, so why wouldn’t we apply that same understanding to anybody else?”
Elizabeth approaches the writing process like she would a puzzle. She takes her time thinking about what she wants to say, and how each piece will fit with the next so that it comes together in a coherent way. The key element to this, as some of your teachers or professors might have told you in the past, is to start with an outline. “I come up with really detailed outlines of what it is I’m trying to say. And then once I get my outline together, which is often many pages long … then the actual writing process is fun … this is what I want to say, now I can focus on how I want to say it.” Without that outline or map of what she wants to say, it’s easy to get sidetracked or lose focus.
“The more you read I think the better the writer you become … You admire other people’s ways of putting sentences together and the kind of language that they use.”
Her advice for writers is two-fold: you need a map, and you need a voice. “Writing isn’t just sitting down in front of a computer and waiting for all the great ideas to appear,” she said. “Your voice needs to reflect who you are. I think too often that’s why people think they’ve got to use big words or more words. Just use your voice in your writing.”
Elizabeth just recently retired on July 1, 2020 after a forty-year career in academia. But even though she is now in retirement mode, her passion for research and writing continues. In addition to working on the manuscript for her fourteenth book — Realizing the Good Life: Men’s Pathways Out of Crime and Violence — she is also working with Pauktuutit Inuit Women Canada on a research project titled “Meeting Survivors’ Needs: Gender-Based Violence and the Criminal Justice Response in Inuit Nunangat.” You can find more information about her work here and see more about the books she’s written here.