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A Practical Guide

This groundbreaking book brings creative writing to social research. Its innovative format includes creatively written contributions by researchers from a range of disciplines, modelling the techniques outlined by the authors. The book is user-friendly and shows readers:

• how to write creatively as a social researcher;

• how creative writing can help researchers to work with participants and generate data;

• how researchers can use creative writing to analyse data and communicate findings.

Inviting beginners and more experienced researchers to explore new ways of writing, this book introduces readers to creatively written research in a variety of formats including plays and poems, videos and comics. It not only gives social researchers permission to write creatively but also shows them how to do so.

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Sociology is anathema to poetry. (Linton Kwesi Johnson, BBC 2018)

Poetry … allows me to be a better social scientist. (Sandra Faulkner, 2019: 222)

Linton Kwesi Johnson read sociology at the University of London before making his name as the inventor of dub poetry. Reflecting on his life and work in the radio interview quoted here, he seems to dismiss his studies as a way of passing the time until he found his real calling: a performance art that brings together words and music.

While Johnson seems to insist that poetry has nothing to do with the study of society, others are not so sure. Sandra Faulkner, a researcher in the field of communication, suggests the opposite: that poetry allows her ‘to be a better social scientist’ (Faulkner 2019:222). Zygmunt Bauman, the influential sociologist, said he had ‘personally learned more about the society we live in from Balzac, Zola, Kafka, Musil, Frisch, Perec, Kundera, Beckett … than, say, from Parsons’ and others who are routinely cited in his academic field (Blackshaw 2002:2; see also Jacobsen and Marshman 2008). Johnson contradicts himself, in any case; he has never stopped examining society, analytically and critically. His poetry speaks of race and racism, class and inequality, and it narrates and explores social conflicts and crises: from police brutality to struggles over public housing. These are the preoccupations of many social researchers, extending far beyond the discipline of sociology to include human geography, anthropology, cultural and religious studies and more, within and beyond universities and academic enquiry.

If poetry and other forms of creative writing were once seen as anathema to social research – and it is a big if – this is no longer true.

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Social researchers of all stripes are, of necessity, also writers. We write research proposals, funding bids, ethics applications; research reports, journal articles, book chapters; theses, dissertations and books; newspaper articles, blog posts and emails; the list goes on. We choose words to put together into sentences and paragraphs that nobody else has written. Whether or not we are specifically using creative writing techniques, this is a creative process. That said, some social researchers write more creatively than others; some social research is more creatively written. Some forms, genres, ways or shapes of writing accord more closely to definitions of creative writing, including Harper’s broad definition that includes writing with both ‘imaginative’ and ‘analytical’ capacities and components (Harper 2019:12).

Writing (more) creatively means looking beyond the orthodox and canonical forms of writing which most of us have learned in study skills and research training courses. It means exploring all the possibilities that are open to us as writers, and resisting the pressure to conform unthinkingly to the default mode. And it means recognising that writing is more than a means of communicating; it is a resource, which remains to be fully tapped. Helen’s teaching is particularly relevant here. In her creative thesis workshops for doctoral students, she has conceptualised writing as teacher, therapist and friend. Like a good teacher, the act of writing helps writers to explore and articulate their ideas (Colyar 2009:425–6). Writing can help us to explore experiences and identify and express emotions, as one might with a therapist. As Pelias (2019:26) puts it, ‘writing allows disorder to find some order; chaos to settle into manageable form’.

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Social researchers are using creative writing in all aspects of their work: from gathering, exploring and analysing data to presenting and disseminating findings. They are doing so in many different forms, including diary entries, letters, stories, field notes, lists, poems, comics, written dialogue, play scripts, screenplays and more. They are doing this through the creative writing they do themselves, which we explored in Chapter 2, and by working with participants, which we move on to examine here in Chapter 3.

This book takes a broad view of social research for creative writing, drawing on a wide range of examples from the literature, and taking inspiration from an array of social researchers. That said, this is a field in which the authors of this book are active, and so we also draw upon examples from our own work. Here, Richard’s research is particularly relevant. Some of this research is collaborative, conducted with fellow researchers who deserve a proper introduction at this stage, since they will reappear in the course of this chapter and later in the book. These researchers include: Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, a writer who identifies as a queer Muslim woman, who facilitated workshops in a project led jointly by Richard and Claire Chambers. Claire teaches postcolonial literature at the University of York, and specialises in Asian and Muslim women’s writing. Nafhesa Ali, the researcher who worked with Claire and Richard to convene workshops in which young British Pakistani Muslims explored and learned creative writing, also contributes a piece of her own to this chapter, exploring research involving creative writing with participants.

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The separation between different ‘stages of the research process’ is quite artificial. Of course, it is useful for purposes of teaching, learning, discussion, and so on. But really all research involves exploring and articulating phenomena.

As we have already seen in this book, creative writing offers opportunities for fruitful exploration and articulation work with participants, enhanced observational research, generating and developing ideas, and many more. This final part looks at how social researchers can use creative writing as we explore our data and articulate our findings. Whereas Chapter 3 drew upon Richard’s research, Chapter 4 is informed more by Helen’s work on writing as a research method. We examine a number of ways or shapes of writing that are particularly applicable to analysis, followed by some others that are associated more closely with dissemination, before bringing these together through the cross-cutting theme of storying.

The idea of using creative writing in data analysis may at first seem quite contradictory to good-practice maxims of working systematically and with great attention to detail. However, we argue that these approaches complement each other and add richness to analytic work. It is possible to demonstrate rigour in the use of creative writing for analysis by practising transparency: describing the process of sense-making from raw data to findings; giving examples of dialogue and interactions (perhaps from composite accounts); and making visible your own role in that process (Markham 2012). Forms of creative writing that have already shown potential for the analysis of social research data include fiction, poetry, and play or screenplay writing.

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Don’t come to conclusions. Come to other things: inquiry, questions, failure, side roads, off-road. (Waite 2019:48)

In my end is my beginning. (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, 1944:27)

Creative writing presents social researchers with challenges and opportunities. Writing – more than simply ‘writing up’ – is a form of enquiry in its own right, a means of searching and questioning, exploring and understanding the social world. Moreover, creative writing has radical possibilities for social research, unsettling and as we put it queering our ways of seeing and knowing. We elaborate on these two themes – searching and queer(ing) – in this final chapter. Here, we draw together threads rather than advancing firm conclusions, and we hope readers will pick up and play with these threads and ideas, as we shall continue to do ourselves.

Writing this book, we have struggled and not always agreed about our definitions of creative writing. In one of our writing meetings, Helen argued the case that all writing is creative. Richard felt the need to distinguish creative from other forms of writing, pointing to definitions of the field and practice of creative writing (for example, Harper 2019). We could each see each other’s point; rather than disagreeing, we both had mixed feelings on the subject. We also remain unsure about the term creative writing. Though meaningful and alluring to us, we recognise that this term can be off-putting to some people. The latter include: those who find creativity and/or writing intimidating, seeing it as something for others; those who argue for more critical approaches to creativity (Mould 2018); and those who are suspicious and implicitly snobby towards creative writing as defined and taught in manuals and handbooks, evening classes and university courses.

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