Monday 23 November 2009

Looking for Patterns (in Stories), Controlling (Stories) for Patterns

I am looking for a few good stories. I have a number of requirements that I've picked up for these stories, or perhaps what I might more properly call story forms. Most of these requirements have been accrued over a long association with social scientists. However, despite the number of books on social science method sitting here with me at my desk (and lying next to my bed, and weighing down my bag, and my suitcases -- for some reason, I always think I'll have time to read about methods when I'm travelling), I'm trying to pare down to just a few good story forms.

As an ethnographer, I participate in OnFiction with a mixture of fascination and trepidation. I am constantly aware of how much improvement my methods for eliciting stories could use -- and so I read each new finding and report with a teacher's eye for translating what we understand about constructing stories into instructions for the people whose stories I'd like to hear. (For this reason, I am a great fan of the work of Joseph Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Wayne Booth: in their books Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and The Craft of Research, they use cognitive studies of reading to reverse engineer writing practices and suggest ways to revise what might most readily come out as writing to better align it with what's more easily read.)(These books, it turns out, are sitting on the shelf by my desk right next to the Oatley...)

As if the constant tension between the exploratory desire of writing and the simplifying desperation of reading -- between wanting to include enough parameters to compare stories (between people, over time, and across a wide range of topics) and wanting to remain both comprehensible and conversational weren't complicated enough, however, even more overwhelming are the frequent reminders of the deeply embedded nature of many mechanisms for experiencing and constructing stories. This may well be the single most troubling feature of narrative for ethnographers. Any part of our interactions with those we research may be inspiring fragments of character, setting, or plot; although we might painstakingly take notice of our own effects, we are irrevocably written into the story we are trying to hear, usually with as little of our own voices as possible.

Considering these tensions (particularly in the light of many hundreds of hours spent eliciting stories, and then listening to their recordings again and again), it strikes me that there are some forms of stories that are easier to tell than others, and perhaps easier to elicit without overly shaping the story elicited. But these stories often have a polished quality, that quality of well worn pocket stones, and may have a coherence that's in tension with the messiness of a story that's been less crafted. Particularly in the arena of questions exploring contradictions that people experience, it would be interesting to know how these qualities interact. I can imagine one axis delineating how practiced a story is and another showing (in contrast? tending to be in a negative association?) how true to the experience of a contradiction a story remains.

No matter how dedicated to respecting 'mess' social science research becomes, in line with a growing movement to grapple seriously with the implications of the reductions required to tell a research story, we are going to aspire to a tellable story. The very search for a trope that contains the pattern of such a story, though, may be in some ways opposed to the goal of not constraining the telling -- and is there a trope that can help control for this paradoxical tension? Although this seems worth the search and the trepidation, the effort of trying to find a good story form that will produce usable data, interesting stories, and grist for analysis makes me wonder how many ethnographers (as many I've known) become fiction writers, instead.

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. (1995). The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Joseph M. Williams (1990). Style. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

John Law (2004). After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for a very interesting post!

I went into an MA program in English as an already published author. I sold and wrote two more books while in grad school. For that reason, I felt I had additional insight about the writing process. I ended up being dismayed in my Rhetorical Theory class to find how very very few (none?) scholars were going to the source -- published authors.

I can certainly understand the appeal of reverse engineering reading to see if that will arrive at a writing process that can then result in readable stories.

As an author, I know dozens and dozens of other writers. I attend conferences and am on email loops with other published authors and I can fairly represent, I think, that authors have a VERY different view of the writing process.

Authors, by and large, recognize that the process is highly individual but that there seems to be, loosely speaking, a structured approach and an unstructured one and that writers tend to fall somewhere along this spectrum. There is some controversy about whether a writer can "evolve" to a more structured approach, something that seems to come most often from a writer with a very structured approach.

I defy anyone, however, to read a finished text and reverse engineer the writer's process from that. I, personally, don't believe that can be done. But perhaps that's because no one's studied the matter. Maybe there are subtle clues.

I can't help but wonder why there are no academics reaching out to writers in the trenches, asking about our experience of process and storytelling and studying what we do and how we get there with our storytelling.

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