by Brandy Renee McCann
Among other hobbies, my stepdad, a teacher in our small community in West Virginia, had a side gig as a flea market entrepreneur—think Billy Ray Cyrus t-shirts and clip-on fans. For a number of years flea market paraphernalia was stored in the Book Room. When it was not needed as a bedroom, the Book Room was a dedicated office space. There were books, of course, as well as desks for us kids (there were six of us when we were all together), genealogy binders, a copier, and random office supplies including a huge stack of triplicate forms that had been used as receipts during the market years.
Eight-year-old me was intrigued by these magical forms. Besides spending time in the Book Room, I enjoyed spying on family members, particularly my brothers who were about a year younger than me. Convinced that my step-sister and I were asked to do more housework during those summers when I had longer visits with my mom, I began following our brothers, sneaking around corners with a triplicate firmly attached to a clipboard, taking notes on my brothers’ actions.
In those years, I knew almost nothing about middle class occupations and had no idea that I was a budding social scientist engaging in ethnographic research: but I had a hunch about the inequitable gendered division of labor and I began collecting data. I don’t remember ever completing the scientific method of research—that is, creating a report and sharing it with others, such as my parents. But I never forgot the pleasure of collecting and analyzing data. Presenting my findings would come later.
Regardless of the type of writing we do, we collect data. If it’s social science, we collect the details from each other’s lives; if it’s fiction, we invent and choose the details from lives of our characters; if it’s memoir, we recreate the details from our own storied pasts.
All this data collecting is the heart of our writing practice. In my science writing practice, as I’m reading interview transcripts, I write down every half-baked idea that floats around. I’ll share my thoughts with our research team and they will share theirs. Some ideas we decide to develop, some we put on hold. Later in the research process, we read through them again and begin organizing them. For example, in one paper I co-authored we analyzed the stories of a group of older women who had experienced living in women’s shelters in later life because of intimate partner violence. As we read the interviews, we kept notes, or jottings, of similarities and differences in the women’s experience. We noticed themes and began connecting our findings to what we knew or didn’t know about intimate partner violence. We moved back and forth between the women’s individual stories, their collective experience, and the preexisting conversations from people working in the field. We generated a lot of text, and then, like stitching a quilt together, we began organizing it and cutting it so that we had an article for publication.
Not all the notes and ideas made it into the paper, but became a part of the “audit trail,” which is simply a record of the analytical process. The audit trail is a record of how a researcher who used textual data arrived at their conclusions. Few people ever see a project’s audit trail, but it’s there all the same, just in case.
I carry that methodology to my personal writing practice. In my notebooks I write snippets of essays or stories. If I only have five minutes between things and am struck with a scene or a sentence I grab my notebook and record it. If I have more time I will try to develop the thought a bit and see what comes of it. If I have even more time, I might look up some facts and figures to vary the narrative distance.
For the past few months, I have been working on an essay about the concept of “backsliding” (in religious terms it is a turning away from the grace of God) and the dissolution of my fourth marriage. I’m not sure where the essay is going yet, but I’m journaling in fits and starts, and when I have longer stretches of writing time, I use those hours to help me process the experience. I’m recreating the data, or the story of my fourth marriage, as I record the facts about what has happened. I’m also recording the facts about my personal growth and how that relates to blockages in my ability to maintain a long-term romantic relationship. At the heart of my problem—the thing I’m wrestling with—is the conflict between my repeated attempts at marriage and my fundamental belief that the institution of marriage is deeply problematic. I’ve become a person who continues to pray to a childhood God in whom they no longer believe. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s not. But these are some of the questions I’m exploring.
These jottings, or journal entries, or notes scrawled on a napkin, become what Natalie Goldberg, in her book Writing Down the Bones, calls “compost.” Sometimes, something in the compost bin will begin to grow. I’m not sure how all these things fit together yet. Even the Book Room, I think, is part of the story of my failed marriages somehow. So in the meantime, in the confusion, I have to trust the writing process. I place my faith in the method. I have to add to the compost pile. Eventually, if I keep writing, the connections will become clear. And out of the mess and muck, when there’s just the right amount of light and water, a little seedling will appear, reaching leaves towards the sun. Not everything in the compost bin will make it into the essay, or even the “shitty first draft,” but all that mess is providing nourishment to fledging life.
Read Brandy’s other work at Reckon:
Nonfiction – The Curse of Clumsy
Nonfiction – Artful Academics: On Relational Confluence