TTTWTP or to LTTS? For scholars it is all about Learning To Tell Stories

Posted by Michael on November 11, 2013

By Niki Vermeulen

“That sounds really interesting! I would like to do that, but I cannot possibly make the time…” This sentence represents the reaction of academic friends and colleagues to my participation in TTTWTP. They are always curious to hear about it and I try my best to explain what it is and how it works. Actually, I find myself quite eager to talk about it, probably because it helps me to get a grip on what I have been doing over the past year… Still not completely sure I have to admit… Especially when they ask me if it is worth the time, I don't seem to be able to give a clear-cut answer. One thing I know for sure is that during my participation in TTTWTP my stories have changed. I guess my accounts simply reflect my own experience, progressing from an outsider to an insider perspective.

Starting as an outsider, I applied for a programme that had caught my eye on an email list. Writing a story on science policy in collaboration with a real writer sounded like a fun experiment. I knew CSPO as a great center and science policy is my thing. The creative non-fiction part was a nice challenge and a way to improve my writing skills. As my current research is funded by the Wellcome Trust which emphasises the importance of public communication, TTTWTP seemed a nice and innovative way to tick that box too. Moreover, the programmes funding from NSF would also make it credible from an academic perspective. So I was happy to find out that my application was accepted and that's when the adventure really started.

During the first workshop in Washington DC, I soon discovered that creative non-fiction is a discipline in its own right, having its own champion, handbook, journal, teaching programmes, and success stories. So this first week was basically my initiation into the world of creative non-fiction. While I thought I would write a wonderful story loosely based on my research and with a strong message on science policy, I discovered that I needed to write a story with my research material, with every word based on evidence, or as Lee Gutkind repeated many times: you cannot make things up.

Luckily I got a great, creative person to collaborate with, and we started to search for stories in my research. This helped me to analyse my material in different ways: not framing arguments but looking for good storylines that tell something interesting. It was fun to talk and discover the many stories present while also getting to know each other and our different backgrounds.

After coming home, the real work began. Separately behind our computer screens and in unison via mail and skype, we drafted a piece with three interwoven story lines, while trying to convey information on the field of ‘systems biology’ and research funding. Our story features researchers trying to build a model of yeast in the computer and their historic counterparts struggling to identify and control yeast. All this research work can be a prelude to the creation of larger models of life – such as the human heart – with important applications in medicine. The writing is indeed a very creative process, as not the argument is central, but a story made of scenes –written images with eye for detail and dialogue.

During the second workshop at ASU, we soon learned that our piece was far too complex and lacked drama. While we thought we understood what creative non-fiction meant, there was not enough story in our work after all, and not enough scenes either. The whole piece needed to be drafted all over again and we had to kill one of our storylines. I have to say that the creative non-fiction adventure turned into a little bit of a drama…

While writing this blog, our story is in the polishing phase. We submitted the third version of the new draft to our editor and are awaiting feedback. However, I can now safely say I’m an insider and I know what TTTWTP means from experience. It is a real adventure that teaches about the complexity of science and science policy, the borders between fiction, and non-fiction, the precarious careers of journalists and writers, and collaboration. However, the most important thing I learned as a scholar is to tell stories. As an ethnographer I already use stories to make arguments, but creative non-fiction first and foremost tells a story. A dramatic story that also conveys some knowledge and a message, in our case about science and policy.

Was it worth it? As with any adventure, you are never sure what it will bring. It certainly cost a lot of time, too much time if you want to conform to today’s academic standards of accumulating as many peer-reviewed publications as possible. I personally think that adventures should be allowed and that it is important to go off the beaten track. I can easily articulate the advantages of my participation in LTTS for my academic career, but I also do not have tenure yet… What totally made it worth, was the reaction of the scientist that figures in our piece. He told me he really enjoyed reading our story and that it brought back many memories. I just hope more people will find our work entertaining and learn something in the process.