There is an alternative, but it is not one we’ve talked about...

Posted by Michael on May 5, 2013

By Karen Hilyard

In a few days, I’ll be part of an invited panel at the Council of Science Editors annual conference in Montreal, to talk about disseminating scientific research in non-traditional ways.   A friend on the conference programming committee invited me after hearing about my TTTWTP fellowship, and it is, indeed, a perfect venue to consider how and why to pair science with creative non-fiction. 

On the one hand, it’s not a hard sell: Creative non-fiction is unsurpassed in its ability to truly engage people in topics that would otherwise make their eyes glaze over.  It’s also available to the masses, unlike research buried in obscure academic journals, hidden behind firewalls, and read only by a handful of scholars in your own discipline.   Popular narrative also addresses the ethical, and sometimes legal, imperative for those of us engaged in publicly funded research to make that science accessible to the public.   Plus, it’s fun to produce.  Messy and frustrating though it can sometimes be, creative narrative is a welcome respite from academic writing.  I plan to make all those points and more during the panel discussion, and I’m also eager to share the lessons we learned in Bethesda about structuring stories and pitching editors, and to recommend some of the exemplars of the genre we were assigned to read back in September. 

However, as I sit down to prepare my presentation, I realize there may be some questions from the audience that I have still not fully answered for myself:  Is it possible for research scientists like me to sustainably produce non-fiction alongside scholarly research?   Where do I find the characters and the scenes necessary to compelling creative non-fiction?  If I need to conduct interviews and background research well beyond my original empirical study, is that added effort feasible for me, especially if it will not count toward tenure?  Do other forms of alternative dissemination, like op-eds or fiction perhaps, offer a more efficient way to get my research out to a broader audience?

As a scholar, I struggle with the logistics of producing creative non-fiction.   I know what the narrative should be or could be for much of my research, but chasing down people with stories to tell is a time-consuming task.  Amid the scramble for the next peer-reviewed journal article and the next grant and the next research study, finding the time to research a non-fiction narrative piece can be daunting.  Not to mention risky, if my effort is ignored in the tenure and promotion process. 

Successful authors like Atul Gawande and Michael Pollan, and no doubt some of the communicators in our cohort, can devote significant time to interviewing characters and visiting scenes, but many scholars cannot.  Bench scientists are several steps removed from the people affected by their work, and social scientists don’t necessarily stumble upon characters, either.  If your research is mainly quantitative, based on a survey or an experiment, for example, who are the characters, what are the scenes and where is the story?  My recently completed research on parental acceptance of swine flu vaccine revealed a decision-making process among parents that was fraught not with fear of disease, but fear of vaccine.  The obvious character in this story would be a mother deciding whether to vaccinate her kids, but all the respondents in my survey were anonymous.   A composite or an imagined character could certainly be conjured from the data, but then I’d be writing fiction.  Many real mothers out there ponder vaccine decisions, but finding one with a good story to tell and a willingness to tell it involves considerable legwork above and beyond the original longitudinal study. 

Qualitative research, on the other hand, may provide actual people, but still presents considerable challenges in using research participants as characters.  If the research has already been completed, gaining IRB approval and participant consent after the fact may be nearly impossible.   You can always go out and find more people and more scenarios that were not part of the initial study, but the non-fiction narrative then begins to take on a life of its own as a separate research project. 

As I consider my upcoming presentation to science editors, I am already anticipating their questions:  How does your article incorporate your research?  What journal article is it pulled from?  How did you go about it?  How did you find people and get them to talk to you?  How much time and effort was required?  The answer is that the article we will complete in May is only loosely based on my research, and my research presented no ready-made characters: we had to go out and find them.  Sometimes securing interviews has been easy, sometimes challenging.  There is still the hurdle of giving those interview subjects a chance to review their characters and their quotes – something professionally unthinkable when I was a journalist, but professionally necessary now, if I wish to preserve my scholarly relationships with the public health officials I have interviewed.  Ultimately, the article has been its own, separate research project.  It has been a great learning opportunity, but an honest description of the process may not necessarily represent a sustainable model for an early-career bench scientist or social scientist. 

There is an alternative, but it is not one we’ve talked about much in TTTWTP.  The one character that any scientist can write about authoritatively, the one whose quotes are readily available and whose scenes are already known and require little additional research, is him- or herself.   Non-fiction narrative written in first-person, in which the scholar becomes the main character and the scholar’s reflections about the research become central to the story, is only one step removed from the reflexive process of qualitative research.  Such reflection can be simultaneous and integral to the research process, instead of requiring the scholar, post hoc, to find and interview subjects the way a reporter must.  First-person stories are clearly differentiated from journalistic writing, combining the best qualities of narrative “transportation” with the opportunity for the author’s opinion and commentary.  And first-person narrative appears to dominate the genre: looking through back issues of Creative Non-Fiction, the stories are almost exclusively first-person narrative, with occasional asides or historical details that shift perspective briefly before coming back to the author as narrator and central character.  It is easy to see why first-person narrative is popular: it adds the richness of interior monologue and emotion to the action and dialog that make up the core of a story.  Scientists don’t do their research in a vacuum, and my hunch is there are lots of interesting back stories out there that all of us could tell. 

I am curious to hear from other Fellows what their logistical process has been, where their characters and scenes have come from.  I wonder if the other scholar-Fellows have wrestled with the same questions I have about whether, and how, non-fiction translation can be a systematic and sustainable part of their ongoing research dissemination.  Scholars are not the only ones who may see first-person narrative as preferable; it may also make sense for the full-time communicators in our cohort.  Their own past writing may have sprung more from their thoughts and emotions or from incidental interactions with characters, rather than from intentional, formal interviews.  If a communicator’s “voice” is normally a personal one, a third-person narrative may not be the best showcase of their writing style and skills, and our collaborations may have effectively muted that voice.   The current model for collaboration in TTTWTP does not lend itself to single-voice, first-person narrative, but maybe another model of collaboration would: what if future cohorts of scholars and communicators were still paired to share their respective expertise, but each produced an individual story, rather than a single co-authored one?

Although we practiced telling our own stories during some of the exercises in Bethesda, most of the stories proposed at the pitch slam were no longer individual ones.  All of us seemed to have assumed that collaboration required third-person perspective.   If the future for many of us is actually first-person narrative, we may need additional instruction and practice to do it well.  I hope we will still have an opportunity to cover those skills as a group.  Maybe Lee will tell us that it is the same process, no matter who the main character is, but I imagine there may be some special skills inherent in making first-person narrative work – moving beyond mere commentary to truly tell a story, finding your distinctive voice, walking the fine line between self-reflection and self-absorption, pivoting between inner dialogue and external action in just the right measure.   

I’m sure it’s a full agenda already in Tempe, but I hope this discussion can be part of it.