Artful Academics: On Entering the Conversation

By Brandy Renee McCann

I sat in the front row and waved my arm. I just couldn’t wait to share my opinion in class discussions. Hardly had another student began expressing themselves when my arm shot up with a half-baked reply. I had something to say and I wanted to say it as soon as possible! It wasn’t until I began teaching that I realized how cringe-worthy this behavior could be and began considering how to more gracefully enter a conversation. I don’t have good manners and it probably took me too long to realize that a basic first step is listening before speaking.

Most of us are writers because we have something to say. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we want to engage in conversation with our readers. We have a story to tell or a thesis to put forth. But because the act of writing is a solitary act, it is easy to forget that we are engaging in a conversation. And like all conversations, listening is just as important as writing.

How do we listen as writers? We do our homework. That is, we do our research.

Incorporating research into creative writing can be tricky. There are many ways of thinking about it, but I find an ecological approach useful. In my field of Human Development, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory is a widely used theory to help researchers and service providers think about how humans grow in the context of communities.  A simple, but useful visualization of the theory is characterized by three nested circles. In the very center is the Individual System (physical and psychological traits); the next circle out is the Meso System (how an individual interacts with close others including local institutions); and the outer circle is the Macro System (the influence of culture and political systems).

Individual System. One way to incorporate research at the individual level is to create psychological profiles of your characters (real or fictional)—this is especially important if you don’t have lived experience with the psychological quirks you’re attributing to your characters. If you’re going to write about someone who lives with anxiety, don’t make assumptions. Instead, investigate how anxiety works? What happens in the brain? How might anxiety manifest in different ways over the life course? For example, anxiety can make children act out in some situations, but in other situations can cause them to be extremely shy or perfectionist. In his graphic novel series, Dog Man, a series pitched to elementary school-aged children, Dav Pilkey uses a cops and robbers trope—which appeals to children’s developing sense of justice—but complicates it with complex psychological backstories for all his main characters. These psychological backstories are an implicit way of adding research to your writing.

In addition to psychological profiles, another example of incorporating research and joining the conversation at an individual level is by explicitly interacting with the research. Stephen West’s recent memoir, Soft Boiled, is an examination of how he performs masculinity as a highly-educated white man. He weaves a compelling narrative of his experience riding alongside a hard-boiled detective in rural West Virginia with a reflexive analysis of theories on masculinity and gender performance. The theoretical investigation of his development as a husband and father is enriched as it is juxtaposed against other forms of masculinity he encounters. Here, he does not critique gender theories, or even the larger culture, but uses the research to critique himself.

Meso Systems. The next level of understanding focuses on people in the context of family relationships and interactions with local institutions such as health care settings and schools. In Heather Lanier’s book, Raising a Rare Girl, a memoir on parenting a young child with a rare genetic condition, she not only confronts her own internalized ableism, but details the casual ableism she and her family regularly encounter in doctors’ offices and in educational settings. She frames her personal experience by bringing in research to document the way in which ableism permeates our culture and manifests in helping professions. In an earlier short piece on the same topic, The R-Word, Lanier writes an etymological history of the word “retarded” to show that words matter. Her research and writing highlights how systems interact to shape her family’s experience.

Macro Systems. The Macro system emphasizes the influence of cultural and political forces. Elizabeth Gilbert’s historical novel, The Signature of All Things, tells the life story of an upper-class woman of the 19th century who developed a theory of natural selection in her study of mosses. The main character, Alma Whittaker, starts life as the privileged daughter of a botanist, where she develops her interest in plant life. Gilbert’s research in this novel situates Alma in a particular historical and cultural context. As a woman, Alma is limited in public life, yet as a woman of means, she has access to books and travel that make her scholarship possible.

This ecological approach can help in deciding where to enter the conversation, especially if you’re writing on a popular topic.

I am working on a book-length project on Appalachian folk magic and realize that focusing the work at the Macro level makes most sense for the project. Although I’ve had a long-standing interest in the topic, I’ve only recently begun to write about it. After an initial draft to get my personal experience on paper, I am immersing myself in the conversation by reading what others have written about folk practices in the region. By doing my homework, I discovered that most of the previous work can be divided into two groups: outsiders doing ethnographic research, and insiders sharing personal experience. Applying an ecological framework, I can see what’s missing from the conversation at this point is an insider’s take on the research. I feel that I can best contribute to the conversation by going beyond my personal experience and focusing my research and writing on Macro System—the historical and cultural contexts of these practices.

I share this example of my own project to demonstrate that I find that using an ecological perspective most useful after writing that messy first draft.  I think it’s helpful to get those early thoughts down, then use research to deepen or investigate your (real or imagined) character’s experience.

And as a reader, few things are more disappointing than an otherwise promising story that has been poorly researched. At best, the work feels trite.  At worst, an author relies too much on their own preconceived notions and further perpetuates harmful representations of marginalized or vulnerable people. Use your imagination, but do your homework.

Read Brandy’s other work here at Reckon:

CNF – The Curse of Clumsy

Artful Academics: On Relational Confluence

Artful Academics: On Methods

author Brandy Renee McCann

Brandy Renee McCann

Brandy Renee McCann, PhD is a writer and social scientist whose work is focused on life in Appalachia. Her creative work has been published in Reckon ReviewStill: The Journal, Change Seven, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, The Dead Mule, and other literary venues. Brandy’s scholarly, collaborative work on aging in Appalachia can be found in a variety of peer-reviewed journals including the Journals for Gerontology: Social Sciences, Journal of Rural Mental Health, and Journal of Family Issues among others. Brandy is a research associate and project coordinator at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. To learn more about the family caregiving research in which she’s currently involved, visit here: Her social media handle is appalbrandy.