Month: December 2014

One love. One story

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A friend of mine who now teaches creative writing in a central London adult education institute – started her career as a well paid and successful actor, theatre director and writer. On one of our regular caffeination sessions sitting in what we fondly referred to as our college annexe, we talked in detail about workplace micro-politics. We called it analysis rather than gossip. The details varied from week to week but the situation was nearly always the same. We would discuss: in this particular set of circumstances what should we do, think or feel? On one of our many occasions, my writerly friend suggested that each of us only ever have one story to tell. Each of us tell our one story again and again and again. The trick, she says – is telling that story in as many different ways as is possible. I like that idea. Not least of all because it reminds me of one my favourite books. I’d like to suggest this book is a deeply influential complex paradigm shifting academic text, but it isn’t. It’s a graphic novel: 99 exercises in style.

This book takes a single story –

a man is sitting at his computer when he decides he wants to go down stairs to get something from the fridge. On his way downstairs someone (off screen) asks him the time. He looks at his watch and says it’s 1.15. He gets to the fridge, opens the door and forgets what he is looking for.

The template for this story is illustrated above.

Is it possible to tell that story 99 times? Below are two (of the 99) versions of it.

1) In one  telling  he focusses on only the important bits of the story – the hands and the punctuation:

2) In another the story is deconstructed and presented as an inventory of its constituent parts: 

In academic writing – empirical or theoretical – we are telling one story.

It really doesn’t matter what we are writing or why. We tell, one autobiographical story. That is: I have come to understand something in a particular way. And this is why. We tell that story again and again and again in everything and anything we write. Because it is autobiographical, I can’t assume my reader knows what I know. If they do, they may not know it in the same way. I have to tell them the story of what and why I think this or that or something else.

The style may differ – that is I might choose to extract and focus on specific details. I may present the details in several different ways. I may even have distinct sub-plots that run through this story.

My colleague Claire Aitchison talks about writing the story of your research in terms of a generic Mills and Boon storyline.

That follows a pattern with its own acronym: IMRAD, introduction-methods-results-and-discussion

But of course this is just one of the 99 possiblities. The template remains the same. I now hold this view of the world and this is why. This is an autobiographical narrative that takes time as the central protagonist. Time is conceptualised as moving forward in a uniform, linear direction. One logical thing after another.

There are there ways to tell your research story – sub plots if you like, or supporting detail and perhaps a change of direction. My colleague Pat Thomson suggests a number of these based on what you feel makes your story worth telling. You have come to understand something in a particular way – but why should we believe you and if we believe you why should we care?

She suggests we may draw on a narrative that follows a slightly different structure:

Thesis to ‘proof’ – you begin with a proposition and then demonstrate its veracity by considering evidence and counter evidence.

Problem to solution – a problem or problematisation is outlined and then the steps to a ‘solution’ – or a different problematisation – are laid out. Alternative solutions are considered and reasons for rejecting them given.

Question to answer – a question is posed at the start, and justified – and the answer built up. Alternative answers are considered and dealt with along the way.

Compare and contrast – the topic is presented and the need for a comparison is given. Material which compares and contrasts is presented and lessons drawn from the exercise.

Cause and effect, or effect and cause – either the cause or effect is presented and justified. The connections are traced and evidenced. The implications of knowing the now apparent causal relationship are elaborated.

Known to unknown or unknown to known – the initial state of knowing or unknowing is outlined and a rationale given for why it is important to un/know it. The reader is led through a set of steps to the opposite condition and the So What – why we needed to do this – is explained.

Simple to complex – a simple or commonsense understanding is presented, and then a set of issues which complicate the initial situation are outlined. Reasons are offered for the importance of these more nuanced understandings.

All of these are of course different ways to tell the same story. Your story about what you now know that you didn’t know before.


Madden, Matt (2006) 99 ways to tell a story: exercises in style, London: Jonathan Cape


I can’t hear myself write

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I’ve always had a diary of some sort, whether it be the teenage notebook heaving with introspection and injustice hidden under my bed, the scatty sketch pad stuffed into my bag, the backs of envelopes and fag packets wedged into the back of my Filofax and more recently the fragments of ideas, plans and grand designs scribbled onto post-it notes, pressed and left, like gaudy butterflies pinned to a board, gently curling on the wall behind my desk.

I see my thoughts now, spread all around me – yet always contained within a screen. I have Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram all containing different facets of myself – captured moments. Facebook I cannot engage with, it seems crass and shallow and too immediate for me. I am an observer, I like to watch and think and plan my words. Twitter is a path laid out before me with stones I can upturn to release 142 characters into the wind. Some explode like tiny bombs or firecrackers around my head, some settle like snow in my hair and melt slowly into my mind and some turn to dust and are carried away on the breeze forever.
Pinterest is the scrapbook I’ve always longed for, it’s a large house lined with cork in which I can move from room to room, pockets stuffed with pins and create self indulgent displays in each. My rooms have names – Ocean…Floating Homes…Images I Love…Places I’d like to go… Wise Words and I wander through them at times when I have nothing to do it nowhere to go. There is even a cellar in the house that I built earlier this year where I throw dark creatures quickly and close the door.
Instagram is my photo album, full of beaches, sunshine, boats, fresh baked bread and my beautiful laughing children.

So now I need to write again and I don’t know who I am?

I have spent years of my life writing reports, funding bids, policies, procedures, job descriptions, minutes of meetings, letters, emails, emails, emails, lesson plans, schemes of work, information handouts, course handbooks, development plans, staff appraisals, supervision notes …. and it goes on.

So I have been writing, yes, but these have been soulless words. Pages and pages of unremarkable, anaemic prose that has fit a purpose. Now I need to breathe life into my words, I want my writing to be profound, heartfelt, sincere and passionate. But where is my voice?

I can hear myself talk and I can see myself around me, I can see what I’ve done, I can see my achievements, my mistakes, I can see what I do, my life, my family, my work…I can look on Twitter, Instagram and the rest but I can’t hear myself write.

I can’t hear myself write.

To be continued….

Write something, anything

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The process of writing can be long, difficult and extremely painful. I was described in the last EdD weekend as being a ‘relentless’ writer (or was it ‘obsessive’, I can’t remember now). It has not always been this way. I am not sure it is now actually.

A few years ago, I went on a three-day writing retreat. This was not connected to my PhD or academic job. It was years before I even considered doing a doctorate. In fact, I went on the retreat because I had to write something about my work as a youthworker. This would be for publication and had a key role in trying to secure future funding. I had been struggling to write this publication for months and months. I had got as far as a few drafts but I was not happy with any of them. In short, I did not know what to say or how to say it. I had no sense of my own voice.

This retreat helped me to develop my own style and to find my voice. Many participants had ‘writers block’ and did not know where to start. The tutors actually made us write – something, anything – believing that getting started was the hardest step. It was so challenging. But I wrote. And since that, I have never really stopped.

I am reminded of this because our new EdD students are preparing the first drafts of their first assignments. I can almost sense the anxiety in the air.

This is one of the first things that I wrote on the writer’s retreat. My thoughts are with you as you get started on this writing journey.

Think the unthinkable jpeg

Writers’ and their Secrets

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One of my PhD candidates sent me the first tentative draft of a her work – her progress so far.  A literature review in which she explores what has not been written so far about her subject. We’ve spent a few months (with my co-supervisor) talking about her approach. And while I was confident that she was working, a few months into her PhD – I hadn’t actually seen anything. The subject line of the email to which her work was attached was entitled “dirty secret’.

I hesitated before opening it.

In her email she explained how embarrassing it is to send a working draft of her work. It feels like something slightly shameful that one would rather no one else know about. The tyranny of light – of being exposed – caused her a degree of discomfort. In sharing a draft you are subjecting your developing ideas-in-transition to someone else’s judgement. At whatever stage you are in your academic career, this is a risk.

I knew of course precisely what she meant. Indeed, rejection is a professional hazard in academic life. Writing in his online academic diary, Les Back professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, London University – discusses his experiences of peer review.

What is interesting to me here is not the bullying critic who uses the mask of anonymity to flaunt their intellectual prowess. It is more the possibility that one reason why this sort of thing happens is because of how we view writing and what we imagine writing to be.

There are few moments when I will lament the introduction of things digital. The pristine, illustrated neatness of digital text appeals to me. Its complete search ability means you never have to say, ‘damn – what was it that this writer said’? It allows you to catch hold of those strands of thought that resonate as they pass you by. The thoughts you like but have to ignore because you are in pursuit of something else and haven’t got time to to grasp hold of them. But, what is lost in the digital is the tactile pleasure of the edited text. The mess is too easily and too neatly swept away. I’m thinking here about the anthropological roots of writing. How does it happen, when and where, why, with what resources, tools and engagement and what implications.

What are our respective writing ‘practices’.

The image that illustrates this post is that of a writer editing his work – J G Ballard’s manuscript of Crash (available at British Library). Posted on twitter by Johnny Geller, literary agent and serial tweeter; the image illustrates – to write is to re-write.

What matters of course is that when we expose our textual secrets to the curious glare of others, we are doing something as much as we are saying something. Frankel (2013) suggests we might consider these messy little inscriptions as ‘writing acts’. In so doing he invokes Austin, a philosopher of language, echoing his notion of ;speech act’. The fact of writing – the fact of writing in public – produces, precipitates, brings into being – performs – a particular self. A particular academic scholarly self. It is the fact of writing, the process I want to being attention to. If these things that I bring attention to were to become scholarly (rather than merely throwaway conversational), they would develop into a consideration of the anthropological roots of writing rather than the thing – the written thing – itself.

Fraenkel, (2010) Writing Acts: When Writing is Doing Ch 2 in Barton, D., & Papen, U. (Eds.). The anthropology of writing: Understanding textually mediated worlds. Bloomsbury Publishing.