According to my proposal timeline, December is when I am working with my participants back and forth with their written transcripts. The idea was to co-create something based on their continued reaction to the discussions we had, to build on the original chats over coffee and tea, in offices and borrowed spaces, to merge our four perspectives into a unique representation of an often-unrecognised issue in the workplace.
It hasn’t worked out like that.
Our discussions were amazing, rich and full of detail. I felt like I had space to tell my stories as well as hear theirs, and many of the threads naturally connected. Our past histories were sometimes shared ones. I also heard some things that surprised me, made me doubtful, made me sad. The typed-up transcripts are lengthy, and I sent them back with the request for my participants to “engage with them”. What happened shouldn’t have surprised me. There were very few changes, a few typos or misspellings were pointed out. A couple of nice comments (I really enjoyed this process, thank you) but I was left with the feeling that this wasn’t going as planned.
Panic! I looked at my consent, at the emails I had sent to my participants, at the messages we’d exchanged on Facebook. I thought I had been really clear – I’d taken time to talk about how this wasn’t a typical interview, we were creating something together, it would be a commitment – take time and energy? Are you sure you are up for that? They’d all agreed!
I looked at my proposal. I’d been (deliberately) unclear about how this next part was going to go. I am used to thematic analysis in qualitative work. I had vaguely thought I’d sort the “data” into themes, maybe write some kind of story per theme? I had hoped that one of my participants would maybe volunteer to write a sonnet, even a haiku? When I teach or talk about qualitative research I always joke that the sections on analysis in text books refer to themes “emerging” – like mushrooms overnight. When in reality it’s a slog that taxes your brain and patience. Less art, sometimes, than persistence and rereading until you can quote your transcripts by heart. Anyway, nothing was emerging here unless it was a creeping sense of dread.
So I went back to the books and articles about authoethnography. HOW exactly is this supposed to work? There is a lot about the craft of writing, characterisation, action, context and resolution (or perhaps a point or moral as not all stories can be resolved). I am told that narrative is always unfinished, there is a “back and forthing” and a constant negotiation of relationships, transactions, truth and ethics. How I use other people’s words and stories is flexible, as long as I am respectful of their truths, and we negotiate the narrative together.
I am also instructed to go off and read, because we write what we love. So I pack up my short stories, my Wintersons, my Atwoods, my Munros for a long plane ride. Remember that I love feminist women, brave women who write from the heart. Rediscover the skill and clarity in good short fiction. This was enjoyable, but not getting it done (I think), not solving my problem.
Then one morning on the long drive to work I turned off the radio and let my mind mull it over. I realised a few things. It took me two years to grasp the idea of writing fiction as research, joining my own voice with the participants, having a conversation and not a one-way interview where I said as little as possible. Adding a paragraph to a consent form – and my own passionate, but possibly less than clear, explanations – probably won’t do the same job no matter how well meaning the participants are. What did I expect? I’d written about how much people had accommodated me and how much as this work they had done in the spaces of their busy lives. If I was living in the same city it might be different, or not. But regardless I needed a new way forward.
So – I decided to write a book (a short one!), that is embedded in my dissertation. I’d like to have illustrations, intersperse short stories with some poetry, maybe a graphic section. I see a cover, a preface, a contents page. I’d like it to be removable, stand-alone – so it could be read for its own merit and hopefully shine a light into the world of the four of us whose stories are told. I’ll share the writing as I go with my participants, but I am also going to meet with them as a group next year and read it with them. See how they respond, gather their ideas and perhaps reshape it. The book will be my results section, perhaps my discussion if I add the “whys and hows” of each piece into the text.
So things aren’t quite going as planned. But that’s what happens. I love my new idea and hope I have the literary skill (and patience) to pull it off. I also love that this doctorate allows me to stretch, to explore part of myself that perhaps would never have been able to unfold. In the middle of all the self-doubt and life-demands I try to remember that.
Some autoethnography references:
Behar, R. (1997). The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative Inquiry: Experience, Story in Qualitative Research. San Francisco, US: Jossey-Bass.
Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2–14. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X019005002
Ellis, C. (2004). The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography. New York, NY: AltaMira Press