Another conference season is just about over. This year I wasn’t very adventurous and just went to one. It was in Spain.
A long while before the event my friend Jill and I decided to rent a house and stay a few additional days. Well that was our intention. We duly booked a house on the waterfront some way away from the conference but close enough to public transport for us to be sure that we could manage getting to and from the venue. However, the best laid plans…
A few weeks before the actual conference, and months after our booking and the saga of transferring money from one country to another, we were contacted by the agent who told us that the owner had taken the house off the rental market. We were not to worry, they had found us something comparable. Jill checked it out online but just as she was about to email the agent to say it looked OK they emailed again to say that the substitute had gone and they had found another one for us, somewhat cheaper, and just as good. Well, life and work got in the way and we took them at their word.
At the last minute I got a bit panicked about where the third option seemed to be on the map – something like an address had arrived only a few days before we were due to leave. I decided to hire a car just in case, and Jill took on the job of trying to find out how we would pick up the key. The day before we left (!) we got some fairly vague instruction about key handover. I printed out some dodgy guidance to our apartment from a web search and we both crossed our fingers that things would be OK.
We arrived at the airport at 9 30 pm at night – it was by then dark – and took the mandatory hour to manoeuver the Spanish hire car queue and forms, finally setting off nervously, in pitch black, much later than we had hoped.
The map got us as far as the town we were originally going to stay in and then let us down. Badly. There were no signs at all to anything that looked like our destination. We drove around and around hoping to see something pointing in our direction, but no luck. We eventually stopped at a petrol station where a very kind person with very little English offered to drive to our pickup point, with us following him.
Our substitute apartment was in a half-built marina, miles away from anything. It was clearly a victim of the Spanish economic collapse and we momentarily felt some sympathy for the owner of the adequate apartment we eventually got into; it was by then well past midnight.
We managed to find out way out of the marina in the morning, and back onto the road to the town where the conference was, writing down as many signs as possible so we could find our way back again. Despite this precaution, the next night we found ourselves in the same predicament, lost and going round in circles, and once again we stopped to ask directions and once again yet another kind person drove in front of us to a point from which we could find our way.
The next morning we decided to construct a narrative to help us find our way back that night. It went something like this. Go straight on at the roundabout with the barrels. Do not turn right at the roundabout with the boat. The half built apartments are on our left. There’s the sherry bodega on the right. The sign with the green neon spectacles is nearly our turnoff. And so on.
We did find our way back on the next two nights using this rather comical approach and we realized that it was probably a pretty common strategy in pre-map days. Make up a memorable story to help make sense of the route.
But why am I telling this story? Why is this important, other than being a saga not entirely atypical of academic life?
Well, it’s because the experience reminded me that it can be very helpful to construct a narrative as a means of making sense of something strange and unfamiliar. It reminded me that this kind of narrative meaning-making is something that I do pretty routinely as a researcher but it’s one that sometimes I struggle to convince doctoral researchers that they need to do. The ethnographers are quite happy with writing every night, but some other researchers are less convinced.
I construct a narrative to record each and every piece of field-work, and each and every piece of significant reading that I do. However I don’t just talk them through. Because I might need to remember them, and because I don’t do the same thing day after day, I write these narratives down. I have note-book after notebook of field work narratives, and all manner of files on my computer, which tell the story of what I’ve done. These narratives never get cut and pasted into anything. They do get read and re-read quite often, and some do form the basis of writing intended for more public viewing. But these narratives are actually not meant for anything other than for me to work out where I’ve been and where I’m going.
These narratives are what Anthony Paré calls writing as a heuristic – writing to make meaning and knowledge – and what I think of as the important writing along the way. It’s writing in order to make sense of the process of researching, reading, observing, interacting… Just like the rather childish narrative Jill and I constructed to help us find our way to where we needed to be, heuristic writing works the same way. As Anthony says, this kind of writing allows us to engage in “intellectual exploration, problem-solving and discovery”.
Maybe some people feel that these kinds of meaning-making narratives are wasted words if they are not for a public purpose. However nothing could be further from the reality. It takes a lot more than 80- 100,00 words to actually complete a thesis. The narrative that we finally produce as the thesis is only possible because of all the other sense-making writing that we have done beforehand.
I sometimes wonder if, in all of the talk about writing for publication, we lose sight of this most important function of writing and undervalue its importance. Writing is the best way we have to make sense of complex and shifting experiences. Narratives to help us find our way are a crucial part of the researcher’t toolkit.
Not convinced? Read Anthony’s elegant exposition of the importance of writing as a heuristic and see for yourself.