Reading Clare Holdsworth’s blog recently, I was reminded of the difficulties of producing good auto-ethnographic research. My background is in comparative literary & cultural studies. Whilst I have never shied away from mixing high-, mid- and lowbrow material from various periods, I have always found it difficult to bring my creative practice which is mostly writing and photography into my research. As a co-editor of Materiality of Love (with Anna Malinowska) and Critical Love Studies (with Amy Burge), I have supported auto-ethnographic research and creative practice as research.
In 2018 I ran three pilots in community-based, participatory research through creative practice. Emma Wolverson and I trained with the help of John Killick [ https://www.dementiapositive.co.uk/john.html ] Hull City of Culture volunteers in co-production of poetry with people who have dementia. We then ran an event for people with dementia and their spouses/partners at Butterflies Memory Loss Group at which we co-wrote poetry about love and relationships. The participants enjoyed it, and there were some very moving texts which we collated in a brochure. I then ran a series of writing workshops with the Spoken Word Collective at the Warren Youth Centre greatly aided by the group’s facilitator Joe Hakim. The process was exciting and fruitful. We produced a zine with the help of Mike Barnes at Type Slowly [https://www.typeslowlystore.com/ ]. There was also a launch event where some of the young writers performed their material. This was followed by writing workshops with the LGBT+ group at the Warren which is facilitated by Hannah Watson. This series of workshops was probably the most fun, as the young people were very lively and expressive. They were also not very interested in publishing or publicly performing their material. To read one’s text to one’s peers for an immediate reaction was the main attraction. It helped with internal bonding of group members and ultimately was not meant to go beyond this context.
For various workshops during the year I wrote creative texts, some autobiographical, some fiction, some auto-fiction about my experiences with love and relationships. The aim was initially not to appear like a researcher who is primarily interested in harvesting data. I wanted to contribute some of my imagination and some of my vulnerability to the group processes. It surprised me how much I enjoyed creative writing which I had not practised very much for ten, fifteen years. That is a reason why subsequently I produced two per-zines (personal zines) and started selling and trading them. I have sold quite a few and have given away some to mostly positive reviews by those who like zines as a medium or who have an open mind towards unconventional creative practice.
What I have not quite come to terms with, is the issue of quality. I can write excellent analyses and criticism of literature, but I am not an excellent writer of creative prose. If we understand zines as low-threshold, direct means of communication through print, mine are perfectly fine. They are firmly rooted in post-punk and DIY culture which are not preoccupied with mastery or professional standards. On the other hand, I am a professional researcher into cultural means of expression. This remains unresolved for me and may spur me on to do more of both.
What I am currently contemplating, is how my autobiographical creative practice could and maybe should play a role in my research. I have used it as a catalyst in the community-based research processes. But what else can my creative practice provide for my research? Creative writing about love and relationships may express complexities and ambiguities which academic prose cannot capture because there is no academic vocabulary to do so. I think there is great potential in this.
There is an obstacle to this in my research which is shyness. It may very well be that my relationship history and my life-long intellectual and emotional investment in matters of the heart could offer more insight through creative practice. I am not sure, however, whether I have the courage to write about my experiences where they really matter to me. So far, my creative writing on love has avoided anything which is emotionally unresolved for me as a person, and anything about the longest romantic relationship I have been having, the one with my wife.
Writers of autobiographies understand that no person is an island. Any writing about the self contains large chunks of the biographies of other people, usually those who have been closest to us. It is conceivable that in the future I will seek consent from my wife and my family to write about them. It would probably take a bit more work to persuade the ethics committee at my university to give me permission to undertake such work as research. What is lacking is my resolve to go down this route. It is one thing to open up about complex emotions in community-based research. It is another one to do so in research publications.
This is not the end of the thought process, though, in spite of the imminent end of this blog entry. One of the early lessons I took from working with the Spoken-Word artists at the Warren was to encourage fiction and fictionalisation. The twilight zone of fiction is an ideal site to engage with our most difficult and our most intense experiences. Spoken-Word artists are commonly expected to be authentic in their expression. There is a tendency to reduce these artists to representatives of (marginalised) communities. Writers of fiction are given more opportunities to explore, to speak in tongues and through characters. Genre fiction is one of the ways of creating enough distance between the author self and the content of the text to establish a safe space for the author and eventually their readers to do insightful research through creative practice.
This takes my train of thought from auto-ethnography via autobiography to (auto-) fiction. The linkage with my own research is something I will need to contemplate further – possibly when I have grown in confidence about my non-academic writing.