Round the keyboard was a paper label, with the words ‘WRITE ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters. Alice ventured to touch the keys, and, finding the sensation to be addictive and quite wonderful in its staccato rhythm, very soon found she had written a page! Three pages! “What a curious feeling!” said Alice, “I must be becoming a writer.” And so it was indeed, for there were words on the screen and the pads of her fingers were singing with a kind of joy.
~ adapted from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
It is coming to the end of #AcWriMo, ‘Academic Writing Month’, when, for the duration of November, academic writers take to social media with valiant goals of words written and writing tasks completed. I know how good it feels to watch the words grow. But writing is more than increasing words. It is reading. It is cutting out words. It is drafting words upon words that don’t work; words which are the evidence of problem-solving processes, etched onto white screens or into notebooks; for erasure or storage in shadowy places, not for publication.
In my PhD, and in this blog, I use writing as a medium of reflective and analytic thinking. ‘Writing aloud’ or ‘free writing’ is one way in which I sometimes see where the words take me and which surprising and non-linear burrows I might be catapulted through.
This post emerges out of a blog and Twitter conversation with three academics around writing and autoethnography: Helen Kara (who writes here about ‘showing her workings’ and revealing the personal), Naomi Barnes (who muses here about autoethnography as a vehicle between the personal and theoretical) and Katie Collins (who responds here with her thoughts about writing as thinking, as filter on reality and as power). Here, I offer my own thoughts to this conversation.
I was ushered into this conversation by Helen, but was already familiar with Katie’s work. Once Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was enmeshed into the fibres of my PhD thesis, I went looking for someone else who had done something similar (because surely I couldn’t be the first), and came across Katie’s then-recently-published dissertation. We had done different things with Alice, but the novel clearly resonated for both of us.
While I didn’t use Deleuzian theory in my PhD, Deleuze’s 1990 Logic of Sense reflects some of my thinking of Alice as a novel of identity contestation, fluid becoming and un-becoming, through language. Carroll’s fantastical, imaginative world questions adult realities and plays with the power and (non)sense of words. Deleuze positions Alice at the borders. As a neophyte researcher who has made some non-traditional choices, I have felt that I have operated in some ways at the borders, questioning and pushing at the edge of where I am expected to be, what I’m expected to do and how I’m expected to do it. Being at once curious about, filled with wonder for, and at odds with, the world is an affinity I feel with Alice. (This week I will present on my use of the Alice metaphor in my PhD, at the Australian Association for Research in Education conference.)
While for my PhD I didn’t adopt autoethnography per se, I did use the autoethnographer’s lens as part of my conceptual bricolage. That is, I saw myself as research instrument, self-conscious participant and immersed, self-identified insider member of my study. Michael Schwalbe’s 1996 metaphor resonated: reflections on my self were both door and mirror; a way in to others and a way back to self.
My PhD thesis self-story (I was interviewed as one of my own participants; but that’s another tale) had the purpose of making transparent my own worldview (along the lines of Helen’s ‘showing my workings’), but it also had another function: to help me know myself. As I worked to find the words to explore and articulate my own lived experiences of the phenomena I was studying, I found, as others have, that I wrote my way into knowing, wrote my world into a version of its reality and constructed my own story in new ways, through the talk-aloud experience of the interviews and the process of forming and finding the words to frame my narrative.
I wrote at one point about writing a PhD as like freeing a sculpture from stone, but I wonder if the process of writing is one in which we free what already exists within, or if it is more than this. Creation? Collage? Weaving? Moulding? None of these seems to adequately embody the process of writing which seems to come simultaneously from within and without; from past, present and future; from materials tangible and intangible. It is deliberate and intuitive; visible and invisible.
And so, I continue to welcome opportunities to write my way into being, to write my way into understanding and to connect my words and thoughts with those of others.