Committing to writing a blog once a week ensures I keep my focus on achievable deadlines.
I also find it gives me the writing space I need to plan what I want to do in the coming months, but most of all it gives me the opportunity to write. There is one more item I’d like to add to the above list; the opportunity to knock the critic off my shoulder and allow myself to write whatever comes into my head, warts and all.
When life is in danger of taking over and I find myself bogged down, having made a promise to myself to post in my blog once a week ensures I actually sit at this computer and write. It can be the biggest hotch potch of thoughts but at least I’m writing and thinking about what I want to do with that novel languishing in the bottom drawer. I’ve had rejections before and the publishing world is a tough nut to crack these days, but that’s no excuse to clean the oven rather than tackling the problem head on.
Writing this blog had made me get back to the never perfect pitch, synopsis bio cover letter and three perfect chapters needed to submit a manuscript. In my August blog I will list here what I’ve done towards achievinge my dreams. There…I’ve said it. Now all I have to do is follow through.
There are so many things that can stop writers from writing: ill health, family commitments, or in my case this week it is sorting out piles of old photographs.
It all began when my cousin, for health reasons, decided to go into assisted care. Myself and her yoga friends have been emptying her flat. The result is boxes stacked everywhere containing piles on books, op shop treasures, things to be sent to the diabetics foundation or numerous garbage bags filled with rubbish. It inspired me to sort out some of my accumulated stuff languishing in bulging cupboards and wardrobes that have been on my must clear list for years. I began with a drawer filled with photos.
However, instead of ruthlessly sorting and throwing out I found myself sitting on the floor immersed in memories as I waded through piles of family and friends: deceased parents, aunts and uncles, supportive children, grandchildren, relatives, childhood friends, writing, hairdressing, three universities and very close friends. The list was endless. So many stories. So little time. It reminded me of writing my novel using my life as the basis of the story.
I am my data; I’m in it and it’s me. I cannot stand back from myself. I have become a subject of my own exegetical research as much as I am an authorial presence and character within my novel. (Gill et al. 2008: 249)
A flourishing life-writing culture has become one of the most dynamic and rapidly developing fields of international scholarship and it is one that generates great interest among the public. It is a conspicuous feature of the Australian literary scene and an integral part of mainstream literature (Ho 2011). Among other sub-genres, life-writing includes biography, autobiography, memoir, and autoethnography. I discovered that the way I use my life experiences in my writing is called autoethnography.
Autoethnography means focusing on yourself (auto) and your experiences as a person and writer/painter/artist whilst you participate and self-reflexively observe the social world in which you are situated in culture (ethnos). In the research process it is often expressed in writing (graphy) (Lincoln & Denzin 2005: 1115).
There has been a surge in autoethnographic writing in recent years. Back in 2000, Clough observed that it had rapidly become ‘the most developed form of experimental ethnographic writing’ (Clough 2000: 280). Since then, numerous researchers and authors have identified autoethnography as a potentially provocative new way of approaching writing and thinking (Berridge 2000; Denzin 2006; Ellis 2004; Reed-Danahay 2006). Autoethnography enabled me to address the challenges of how to honour my research data, how to honour life experience and how to represent it.
By using the self as research data, autoethnography moves beyond genres by crossing literary and sociological borders (Devault 1996: 30). The main autoethnographic tool was my collection of hand-written reflective and reflexive writer’s journals. They are an invaluable record of my artistic practice and critical thinking. The journals reveal how the methodological requirements of autoethnography empowered me to distance myself, not only from the auto/biographical experience, but also from the fiction. As a result my writing practice moved further into fiction.
Autoethnography connects the personal to the social, cultural and politically gendered nature of my writing journey, and it assisted me in the meaning-making process (Ellis 2004: xix). For example, I asked, how did I arrive at this stage in my life? What processes enabled me to start a PhD? Why did I want to study, especially at my age? I questioned the importance of mentorship and how the world around me has enabled or constrained my choices and why I wrote this second novel.
In order to weave any kind of textile, the weaver needs to start with the warp threads. Warp comes from the Old Norse word, varp, which means ‘the cast of a net’ (Simkin 2011). The warp of a fabric acts like a net to capture the weft, holding weft threads firmly so that they will not escape (Smith 2010). Warp threads tend to be coarser and stronger, because they must be able to withstand tight stretching (Simkin 2011). They also provide a core of support for the finished fabric giving it body and form. I see the autobiographical threads underpinning and informing my creative writing as the taut warp threads of my literary design firmly attached to the autoethnographic research framework of the loom.
My desire was to write a well-researched and engaging story of Maggie’s interesting life and our penfriendship. However, in the process I had to acknowledge the importance this project had for myself. My life experience underpins and overlays my writing practice, and situates the stories in my novel. I was on both the inside and the outside of the text: writing like a novelist, but thinking like an ethnographer.
My writing became a reflexive form of self analysis, and intertextual representation that challenges the status quo (Denzin 2005: 945). Like Laurel Richardson I welcomed the blurring of genre, ‘the complexity of writing, the shaggy boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction,’ ‘subjective’ and ‘objective,’ ‘true’ and ‘imagined’. I desired my work to be both scientific, in the sense of being true to a world known through the empirical senses, and literary, in the sense of expressing what I had learned through significant writing techniques and form (Richardson 2000: 253). I became a woman who wanted to own and understand her own story.
The novel is not author-free. My incompleteness, adventures, energy, insights and my growth as a person and as a writer all underpin the autoethnographic writing practice (Miller 2008: 94). Autoethnography ensures that I can use myself and my own experience as a woman and a writer to expand and inform my data (Wall 2006: 3) whilst still enabling me to speak freely and in a way that will ultimately be self empowering (Butler 1992: 6). I discovered there is no right or wrong way to tell a story.
Focusing on the writer’s subjective experience, rather than the beliefs and practices of others, autoethnography produces knowledge by rejecting the concept of the detached observer. Bochner claims: The investigator is always implicated in the product. So why not observe the observer, focus on turning our observations back on ourselves? And why not write more directly from the source of your own experience? Narratively. Poetically. Evocatively. (Bochner 2000: 270)
The move beyond the literary traditions of auto/biographical writing to the academic enterprise of autoethnography gave me the ethnographic skills and the permission to investigate my own life, but how poetically? How evocatively?
Research revealed an emerging continuum in the way autoethnography is defined and practised. There is a vast difference in the focus on auto (self), ethnos (culture) or graphy (the research and writing process) from one researcher to another. On one end of the continuum are those who emphasise the artistic evocative and emotional nature of the autoethnographic process. These include Denzin (2003), Ellingson (2006), and Holman Jones (2005), who advocate an interpretative, emotional and evocative practice which translates into autoethnographic informed writing that places a significant emphasis on subjectivity, which Ellis terms ‘heartfelt’ autoethnography (Ellis & Bochner 2000: 747). These highly personalised, compelling and revealing texts, in which an author tells stories about his or her own lived experience, are concerned with moral, ethical, and political consequences.
On the other end of the continuum, autoethnographers such as Leon Anderson (2006) stress the analytical and the scientific in a form of ethnography which Denzin disparagingly calls the ‘Third Chicago School’ (Denzin 2006: 422). Analytic autoethnography emphasises a commitment to a systematic research agenda and to improving theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena. Self-reflexive investigation of my PhD research writing practice revealed that I fulfilled the requirements of Anderson’s five autoethnographic steps. These are, that the researcher (a) is a full member of a research group or setting; (b) uses analytic reflexivity; (c) has a visible narrative presence in the written text; (d) engages in dialogue with informants beyond the self and (e) is committed to an analytic research agenda focused on improving theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena (Anderson 2006: 375).
My research works at both ends of the continuum. Ellis maintains that autoethnographers need to look inwards exposing a vulnerable self, followed by a courageous sharing of stories that encourage compassion and empathy (Ellis 2004: xix). The openness and emotional communication is often revealed in the personal letters between women. Feminist thinkers and exponents of écriture féminine such as Hélène Cixous (2004), Virginia Woolf (1927) and Clarice Lispector (1989) advocate the need to break through barriers of shame, cowardice and fear to a vulnerable writing self in order to engage readers hearts and minds. This writing captured my enthusiasm. Written in easily understood language it was an effective form of communication. Such texts reflected the openness and emotional connection often found in personal letters between women.
In spite of the emphasis on qualitative research, highly personalised autoethnographic narratives have been criticised for slipping into what Sara Delamont calls, ’emotionally explicit self-indulgent trauma therapy’ (Delamont 2007: 4). My own experiences as the subject and object of research gave me the authority to use myself as research, but how much was I prepared to reveal of what one conference delegate at an international Qualitative Research conference I attended called, the ‘yucky stuff’ of life?
As a case in point, there is a fine line between revealing a vulnerable self and what is often termed ‘narcissistic navel gazing’ or even ‘confessional writing’, ‘misery memoirs’, or ‘Misery Lit’, (Twitchel 2011:621) even if it is, as Joanna Gill states, ‘immensely popular’ (Gill 2001: 82). Journalist Arifa Akear’s article (2010), reveals how literary judge, Daisy Goodwin, was overwhelmed by the volume of misery literature entries for the prestigious Orange Prize. Supporters of the genre contend that ‘Misery Lit’ directly confronts often ignored topics, while others argue that the appeal lies in voyeurism (Twitchel 2011: 622). Many well researched and evocative autoethnographic narratives of self, ‘staged as imaginative renderings that allow the researcher to exaggerate and swagger with the purpose of revealing intimate details’ (Sparks 1998: 21) remain too personally confronting for me.
Intimate detailed stories of domestic violence, sexual abuse, degradation, and torture during the Qualitative Inquiry Conference in Illinois made me squirm in my seat. They are important stories and need to be told, but I cannot write this way. (Journal 3 2009: 59)
Another issue of concern raised by these evocative stories was the effect on the author. Reflecting on past emotional experiences, and writing about them, as I do in the novel, can be cathartic, but facing your demons is not always beneficial. It is possible to be distressed again by reliving the experience (Douglass & Volger 2003). Culturally conditioned to not reveal the traumatic events within my life, I drew back from what I perceived as self-indulgent cathartic revelations (Twitchel 2011).
This reluctance to privilege emotional experiences may well be why I used a letter-writing format for my novel. There is a distancing between writing the letter and the events. In the process of writing, events can be turned into sanitised, edited, or embellished stories. I reflected on the need for this personal distancing and took my findings back into the novel. My characters share the joys and heartaches of their lived experience, of births, deaths, loss and betrayal, but are hesitant to ‘divulge all’. There is always a ‘holding back’, a distancing from the events which when committed to paper are turned into stories. An example is when Maggie is struggling with the aftermath of her husband’s stroke. It was a harrowing experience, but she glosses over the seriousness when writing to her penfriend, Diane.
I tried to ring you, Diane, but only got the goddamn answering machine. I apologise for the long silence and hope you understand. Hank has had a stroke, but he is home and coping well. Barb is insisting I still go on the trip to Kenya… (Artefact: 112)
The unstated pain is there in Maggie’s swearing at the answering machine and Diane reads between the lines. Often, what is unsaid is more powerful because the reader applies their own interpretation, undoubtedly bringing the text to life in their own unique way (Barthes 1987).
My desire was to write an engaging, useful, more accessible story that changes hearts and minds (Foley & Valenzuela 2005: 221). After all, if the work does not touch the heart of the reader, the understandings will not linger (Sameshima 2007). The writing must strike a chord of recognition and to do this the writing must be passionate. I wanted the reader to reflect about his or her own life through the medium of my writing. A combination of both analytic and heartfelt autoethnography became the foundation of my writing loom.
Letters and autoethnographic writing have much in common. Both have omissions, additions, disguises, and representations of reality and are often closer to the art of fiction than is acknowledged. Both give the writer permission to use strong metaphors, and dramatic recall. Richardson describes an autoethnographic narrative of the self as:
A highly personalised, revealing text in which an author tells stories about his or her own lived experience. Using dramatic recall, strong metaphors, images, characters, unusual phrasings, puns, subtext and allusions, the writer constructs a sequence of events, a ‘plot’, holding back on interpretations, asking the reader to ‘relive’ the events emotionally with the writer. The researcher uses the writing techniques of fiction. They are specific stories of particular events. Accuracy is not the issue; rather narratives of self seek to meet literary criteria of coherence, verisimilitude and interest. (Richardson 1994: 516)
I needed to write between genres to ‘make a point without tedious documentation, relive the experience, and say what might be unsayable in other circumstances’ (Richardson 1994: 517). I wrote in the gap between heartfelt and analytic autoethnography, as well as between fact and fiction. To work between genres, using a fictionalised self, to weave my life stories through a space between binaries and into gaps, exclusions, silences, and questioned givens, meant that my novel was messy, uncertain, multivoiced and a form of cultural criticism (Denzin 2005: 935).
Analytic autoethnography and creative heartfelt autoethnography were two vital parts of the framework of my methodological loom. This meant that I engaged with the novel in a different way. I saw not only my life as data, but my work as data and the drafting of the novel an act of research. It changed me as a writer and a thinker. Autoethnography was the methodological framework that held the autobiographical foundation in place while I wove epistolary fiction through the story. It was the qualitative research tool I used to analyse my collection of letters and epistolary fragments to make meaning of my life and relationship with Maggie, enabled self-interrogation in the investigation of my writing practice.
Autoethnography empowered me, nevertheless, it still did not fill all the gaps. Although I saw my reactions, both as a woman and as a writer, to be an invaluable part of the research process, the capacity to generalise out of my own life was limited. When contemplating making my experience available to others, I realised that I could create more entry points for others through fiction. Autoethnography provided me with the confidence to realise that what I needed to tell this story was to go further into fiction Writing fiction enabled me to distance myself further from the auto/biographical experience, but it was the methodological requirements of autoethnography that empowered me to distance myself, not only from the auto/biographical experience, but also from the fiction. By mobilising creative epistolarity, I addressed the challenges of how to honour my research data, how to honour life experience and how to represent it.
Writing can be an isolating experience. Many writers seek the support of trusted likeminded people willing to share artistic and practical feedback. I’ve had fantastic support while writing the novel. Now it is up to me to do the hard yards and get it published. Thank you for being my unseen blogging supportive network who help keep me trying and keep writing; yet another benefit of blogging.