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The Artful Science of Autoethnography and Creative Nonfiction

By: Erin York

“How do I justify my educational journey to not only family and friends who do not see a connection between my two areas of study but to future employers as well?”

Often, I find myself separating art and science. Perhaps I learned to do so when I was young, listening to refrains of “boys are good at math and science, and girls study literature and language.” While we have continuous reminders of how antiquated and just plain wrong such sentiments are, I realize how those early citational chains shaped my own pursuit of knowledge.

I took up writing at an early age, had my first poem published at 14, and even received a $25 paycheck for it. I attended dance classes, traveled to writing conferences, and enjoyed piano, painting, and gardening, hobbies that have persisted into my adult life. On the other hand, I enrolled in the minimum number of science and math classes during my undergraduate degree and filled up my elective slots studying creative writing, learning to speak Mandarin, and deciding where I stood on the debate of Shakespeare’s identity.

Even enrolling in my first master’s degree, which I received in Higher Education Administration in spring 2017, failed to daunt me because social sciences seemed close enough to subjects like communications and anthropology that I felt homed. I could write papers, instead of jotting down the solutions to problems under a timed test. However, as I entered my first quantitative research courses, I heard the destructive discourse in my mind again that I was unfit to learn statistical software, coding and analysis, to build new models for generalizable phenomena. But I muddled my way through those courses all the way into a PhD.

While pursuing my PhD, I decided to also search for MFA programs across the country that offered an emphasis in not only fiction but specifically in Young Adult fiction. In my own South Carolinian backyard, I stumbled upon Converse College’s MFA program that not only was low-residency but also touted YA alumni who were actively publishing. Immediately I began my application.    

Art and Science or is it Art or Science?

During the course of pursuing these dual terminal degrees, I found myself on a continual quest for my nexus: where do art and science come together? How do I justify my educational journey to not only family and friends who do not see a connection between my two areas of study but to future employers as well. However, the answers to the intersections have been multiplicitous, the opportunities abundant, and the linkages continual.

I happened to take a qualitative methods course the same semester I completed a second emphasis in Creative Nonfiction for my MFA. It was in the overlap of those courses that I began to piece together exactly how well a degree in educational science and one in the art of writing could nest in my own future work.

Tell It Slant by authors Brenda Miller and Susanne Antonetta covers many tenets of creative nonfiction, including writers’ identity, ethical controversies in truth(s) telling, artifact recovery, the importance of positioning your writing in time and history, and community building. Each of these tenets correlate with the qualitative research method of autoethnography.

What is Autoethnography?

Autoethnography was founded as a research method by Carolyn Ellis, Tony Adams, and Arthur Bochner, among other contributing scholars from a variety of fields who participated in the paradigm shift from Positivism (the belief in full objectivity in research) to paradigms that not only acknowledge but embrace the subjectivity of a researcher in relation to their research, much as authors of creative nonfiction often center their experiences in memoir or the lyric essay.

Autoethnography “combines characteristics of autobiography and ethnography” (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011), while interrogating socio-cultural or political phenomena from the primary lens of the researcher. Layered upon the researcher’s lens may also be framings from theories, such as Critical Race, Queer, or Feminist foundations. Autoethnographers must then determine how to translate their findings into aesthetically pleasing ways, often in the mode of storytelling.

Autoethnography and Creative Nonfiction

The similarities between autoethnography and creative nonfiction already leap off the page, right? Author and researcher become one. The importance of time, situatedness, identity, and framings are central to both pursuits. Likewise, heirlooms may be the subject of a family essay labeled as creative nonfiction, whereas the tokens of a queer activist now passed may be a focal point in an autoethnographer’s essay about queer identity in today’s Western society.

Both autoethnography and creative nonfiction value semantics and form. Autoethnographer Carolyn Ellis took her study of written arts into crafting of a novel entitled The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel, in which she created composite characters, made fictionalized accounts of her professorship in the Academy, and then included interview transcripts and her research design, truly pushing the boundaries between science and art, to produce an interdisciplinary book.

Autoethnography, in fact, touts a founding principle actually does work to disrupt the constructed binaries in Western society, like the one between art and science. Doing so allows for greater accessibility of research to wider audiences and positions art as important as scientific pursuits, the latter of which can unfortunately be perceived as holding greater value in a consumerist, late-capitalistic society.

When to Tactfully Weave in Fictitious Content in an Authoethnography and Creative Nonfiction

Both autoethnography and authors of creative nonfiction face similar ethical issues and concerns. Undertaking any writing project requires commitment to the craft, to structure, and to the study of established and emerging forms. This is no easy feat, even for those gifted in the field. Autoethnographers and authors of creative nonfiction must consistently ask themselves questions on the ethics of their writing. For authors, this may emerge in the form of wondering how their truth may match up to the truths that their loved ones may hold. They may wonder if for metaphorical significance they can change blue objects to red or a cat into a dog. For autoethnographers, their work must be able to be measured up against standards of research validity. How have they kept their analytical memos? Whose interview transcripts fit their overall narrative? What is their research protocol?

 The “Truth,” in both autoethnography and creative nonfiction may find itself asserting questions of validity and ethical natures, but both autoethnographers and authors must work against such Positivist notions of objectivity and instead lean into their subjectivity and positionality in their work. In fact, the author’s identity is central and should be honored in both methods.

The Pros and Cons of Autoethnography and Creative Nonfiction

While creative nonfiction and autoethnography have both established themselves in their respective fields, neither finds themselves free from controversy and critiques. Subjective pursuits, however, even when evaluated by peer review, the publishing process, and measures of validity, will no doubt continue to appeal to many, while alienating those who value only “hard facts” and “right answers.” Unfortunately, at least in this researcher-writer’s opinion, or perhaps fortunately, we only ever know what we know until we learn differently. Even the scientific method, itself, employs repetition and allows for margins of error because outliers and new information can always reshape what we believe we know, even if it is printed in textbooks, encyclopedias, or written online as fact. How exciting that both science and art, and scientific art, can be in teaching, in learning, and in adapting to change!

Commingling Science and Art. It is Possible!

While I still cannot say I’d like to take classes on quantum physics or advanced calculus tomorrow (part of that might just be some severe senioritis), I can fully call myself both a creative writer and a researcher capable of coding, completing analytical work, and participating in mixed methods. I value the spaces in which my pursuit of two terminal degrees can find room for one another, and I enjoy the work of disrupting binaries that continue to persist in dominant discourses in Western society.

Girls can study science and math. Boys can love art, dance, writing, and music. Nonbinary folks can study whatever their minds and hearts desire. While I’m sure most of us realize that by now, it bears repeating. And repeating. And repeating.

Science and art without one another could arguably not exist, and continuing to separate them and place them into hierarchies does nothing but damage society. So onto arts-based research design, New Journalism, and fiction and writing of all kinds seeped into all of the branches knowledge, new and old that we—yes, each one of us—have the power to learn, teach, and create!

Tell me how you combine science and art in your own craft or interests. Tell me what harmful societal discourses you have unlearned and how you have reoriented your own lives. I look forward to your comments.

Yours,

Erin York 

 

Erin York is concurrently enrolled in PhD and MFA programs where she is studying education and creative writing. Her areas of interest include arts-based representations of research, autoethnography, creative nonfiction, and queer perspectives–she also loves to read (and write) a good zombie novel. In 2020, she received a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies where she completed a capstone project exploring Queer Theory. Previously, in 2017, she received her MEd with high honors from the University of South Carolina. Before that, she graduated magna cum laude with her BA in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her first book of poetry, The Light You Cannot Touch, won the international Author’s Circle award for Poetry, and she has been the recipient of several national and regional awards for her work. You can find Erin gardening, playing video games, or enjoying a hot cup of tea when she isn’t playing with words. 

Anthropomorphism: An Animal’s Tale

By: John Peebles

“The tale of an animal is one worth telling because it is so vastly different from our own.”

Tell a story about a man, then change the man to an animal, and the story changes dramatically. The main character is not the only thing that has changed, but how the story is written. The reader is constantly aware that the main character is not human, which adds a level of surrealism and fantasy to the story. When writing about anthropomorphic animals, the author needs to consider how the animals’ natural abilities, instinct, and biology affect their development as characters, the setting, and interactions with those around them. An author can imagine and study a specific animal’s behavior but never know firsthand what the experience is genuinely like, that they must project their ideas and characteristics onto the character. The projection of the characteristics of human subjectivity onto animal sentience and behavior is called anthropomorphism.

Animals in literature cannot be written the same as human characters because the story is being told from a different relationship and perspective to the world around them. For example, Watership Down by Richard Adams tells a story through the perspective of the rabbit characters. The story would be much different if told by a human observer who only objectively describes the animal and their actions. To write this story, Adams has to imagine the thoughts and feelings of the rabbits as they struggle and progress through the plot. These elements include their limited knowledge of the world around them, their basic biology, and simple behaviors such as running and eating.

What is Gained by Using Anthropomorphic Animals as the Characters in Literature?

Writer, Juliet Kellogg Markowsky, describes four reasons for anthropomorphic writing: 

  1. Identify. The first is being “to enable young readers to identify with the animals”. Knowing what the animal is feeling and understanding their behaviors in a specific way allows for the reader to empathize and engage with the story, which leads to Markowsky’s second reason, which is escapism.
  2. Escapism. “Escapism must be looked at not only escaping from a reality, but as escaping to a new form of reality which an imaginative author can provide.” . 
  3. Variety. The third reason Markowsky describes is “an author can develop a great variety of characters in a short book with a few words if an animal is used to express attributes commonly assumed to represent the creature” . This can be done in various ways depending on which attributes are taken from the animal including an animal’s natural intelligence, physical ability, and even what they eat. 
  4. Humor. The fourth of Markowsky’s reasons is humor. “Animals who are caricatures of certain types of people are funny to adults and children alike.” This is common in cartoons and movies.

Recognizing the Differences in Animal Characters, Just Like Human Characters

Anthropomorphizing animals creates a problem in literature due to the fact the author cannot know the actual thoughts or feelings of the animal themselves, so they must imagine what they would be like based on pre-existing human thoughts and perceptions. This is important for writers to understand when using anthropomorphic animals or any non-human creature in a story because, just as not all humans are the same, the animals differ even more, especially when considering factors such as species and breed. A larger breed of dogs will act differently from a smaller breed and be treated differently by those who come in contact with it. Each character differs from each other because of the animals’ biology, natural demeanor, and how they are perceived by the other characters they interact with throughout the story. The conflict between those who eat meat and those who are eaten will also be considered when writing a story and how that affects the plot.

How Do You Properly Anthropomorphize an Animal in a Work of Literature? 

As previously stated, the author has to look at what the animal’s real-world biology is and adjust their behaviors and attributes from there to fit the story. While this is not a hard rule, it is important to consider when writing anthropomorphic characters.

There are basic worldbuilding elements that are critical when writing these kinds of stories. A characters’ psychology for instance such as a carnivore’s desire for meat and an herbivore’s fear of death are two popular traits used when telling a story about anthropomorphic animals. How does a wolf’s desire for meat affect them in a world where such actions are considered taboo and murder? What alternatives are there for such cravings or are such actions acceptable such as eating meat?

Biology

Biology is also critical when using animals as characters because the author must remind the reader that the character is something other than human through the use of behaviors and terms associated with the animal. Examples of this would be wagging tails, flapping ears, rising and falling fur, clacking of hooves, and scratching with claws. An animal’s enhanced sense of smell, sight, and hearing are ways of developing the plot and allowing feats to be accomplished that normally couldn’t be done with human characters. How often and how these traits are used is a good way to demonstrate that the character is something other than human and how they fit into the setting. An animal’s strength or size is a good way of adding tension to a story such as a bear’s large size making them harder to interact with smaller more delicate animals. This brings in the subject of prejudice against certain species or animals because of their biology which is commonly seen in stories, the most famous example being George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Society

The animals’ society is the final point when dealing with anthropomorphism and this gets back to the world building mechanics and setting. This can be summarized into one question, who is in charge? Are the strongest on top or is there a system of equality for all species? Are those who are the most intelligent in charge like in Animal Farm? Orwell’s novel is a good example of using an animal’s distinctive and natural traits to build a miniature society. Dogs are loyal to their master; some animals are more intelligent than others while the larger ones are tasked with doing the heavier work. Then you have to consider humans and how they fit in with this animal society? Are they friend or foe? In my opinion, it is important to have both humans and animal characters coexisting together whether it be as enemies or friends. Having a human element in these types of stories adds a level of realism and allows for the reader to latch onto something within the story.  

Some Things to Avoid When Writing Anthropomorphic Characters

There are pitfalls when using anthropomorphic characters in literature. Relying on cliches and stereotypes can become a crutch as well as r the reader’s engagement with a particular character. Simply telling the reader what type of animal a character is but not using any of their traits defeats the purpose of using the animal as a character in the first place. While there is no rule that says an animal character needs to act or exhibit animal behaviors to be a character, not having those traits takes away the animals’ unique qualities and lessens their role. Another pitfall I will mention is simply stating an animal’s traits inaccurately. When using animals as characters, it is crucial to have an understanding of their biology so not to make simple mistakes that a quick internet search could point out.

Why Should You Use Anthropomorphic Characters in a Story?

Is it worth going through the trouble of ensuring that you as a writer are portraying each animal accurately and respectively? In my opinion, it is worth it. I already stated Markowsky’s reasons for using anthropomorphic animals in stories, but now I want to state mine. Having animal characters allows for a way to tell a story through an artistic lens that simply cannot be told with human characters or aren’t as engaging. The struggles of characters with problems that humans cannot begin to understand because of our different biology. Anthropomorphism allows for an entirely different method of storytelling.hile it is a common practice in literature, it is not as well known or appreciated as many other genres and writing styles. The tale of an animal is one worth telling because it is so vastly different from our own.

Works Cited

Markowsky, Juliet Kellogg. Why Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature? Elementary

English, vol. 52, no. 4, 1975, pp. 460-466.

 

 

John Peebles received his MAW from Coastal Carolina university and is pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing at Converse College.

 

Feature Photo by Daniel Tuttle

Always Having Something to Say, But Never Having Time to Write It

By: Shanta Brown

” Writing was and still is my calm and happy place.”

As an undergrad at Converse College, I wrote a lot outside of my regular homework assignments. Nothing would come between me and my writing, not even my roommate begging me to come hang out. Writing came so natural to me, like breathing. Whether I was having a good or bad day, I would write. Writing was and still is my calm and happy place. All of my family and friends should be thankful for this! 

Fast forward to almost 20 years, I have a husband, 3 kids, and a dog. I was like: Writing? Who, what, when, why and how? 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I must pay homage to all the wives and mothers who have mastered the art of living and writing! At first, I didn’t know how. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure it out, but I’m learning. Slowly, I had allowed my happy and calm place to disappear. Of course, it didn’t happen overnight nor was it intentional on my part. However, it happened and by the time I noticed, it was too late, or so I thought.

Professors. They Do More Than Teach. 

Thankfully, Professors Rick Mulkey and Susan Tekulve kept their eyes on me. Even though I was no longer their student, they invited me into their friendship circle. I’m forever grateful for that. They always made sure to invite me to reading and writing events. Along with them and my forever writing friend, Kathryn, writing remains a part of me. Even though I neglected it, the talent I have for writing never left me. I continued going to readings, but not writing; or editing someone else’s work; but not writing. At the time, I didn’t realize writing was slowly wooing me back. Even while attending readings and editing others’ work, my mind was full of poems that were not yet written – I just didn’t know it.  

Dear Me…

I’ve always had something to say. My husband will totally vouch for this. Looking back on this journey, I’m inspired to write a note to my 20-year old self and to my future self. 

Dear Poet Shanta,

Yes, you are, and are going to be. I know right now that it doesn’t look like it, but you are going to write your heart’s desire on paper. The change you wish you to see, you will write about. Writing loves you, and you love it. However, you two will break up for some years before reuniting. Please know that this time apart will be necessary. You will need to grow into your many roles: adulthood, womanhood, and motherhood. These roles will be your rearview mirror, your connector – linking your upbringing to your future. I know that you can’t see it, but I can. Whatever you do, just keep internally speaking. I promise you that when it’s time, you’ll be ready. Writing will come back to you, and you’ll get that same flutter in your stomach, and even in your soul, to grab that paper and pen, and you’ll start to write; because you know that you have a lot to say!

The Takeaway

So, for those of you who were bitten by the writing bug like me, I want to leave you with a small token of encouragement. Be satisfied with each stage of life that you live, and when writing makes its reappearance in your life, HOLD ON and WRITE ON!

 

 

Shanta Brown is a poet who writes about her strong southern family roots. She is an MFA candidate at Converse College. She’s also a Junior Poetry Editor at South 85 Literary Magazine. She was also recently selected for a Converse College MFA Graduate Teaching Assistantship to begin Spring 2021. She resides in Spartanburg, SC with her husband and three children.

 

 

Feature Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

The Practice of Prompt Writing

By: Hannah Marshall

“A prompt delivers a nice, packaged “triggering subject” from which to write…”

I used to hate prompts, their artificial sentiments bullying their way into my writing. Before I enrolled in the Converse College MFA in Creative Writing, I almost never used a prompt to jumpstart my writing. I believed in order for my writing to be pure, it needed to emerge organically. I wanted to freely write poems from my life experience, the words falling from the ether and onto the page. But you know what? Even back then, I used a prompt for pretty much every poem I wrote. I just didn’t know it.

The Magic of the Naturally Occurring Prompt

I used to always spend the beginning of my writing time reading a book of poetry, whatever was on my list at the time. I’d read maybe one poem, maybe ten or twenty, and then I’d have the sudden urge to write a poem of my own. These poems were responses to what I’d read, and though I didn’t have a written prompt, it was the words on the page that prompted me. I’d read something like these lines from “The Mother’s Apple” by Li Young Lee: “The blossoms give themselves to the wind. / Who will I be given to?” and I’d need to speak into the subject myself.

Sometimes, I’d be out in the world, doing life: walking by Lake Mendota, shopping for groceries at the local co-op, or changing my infant’s diaper, and I’d have that URGE to write a poem. These prompts were situational, brought on by events, but they were still prompts. Perhaps I’d see a Norway maple so yellow I could taste its brightness. Write it down! Or my baby would look at me in a way that I’d never been looked at by anyone before, her helplessness, her complete trust. Write about it!

The thing is, these situations take time and space to develop. I don’t have epiphanic moments every day, not even every week. And I don’t always get sparked to write when I’m reading someone else’s poems. I like to be in conversation with other poets, but sometimes it comes out in more subtle ways than, I must write about this same topic right away!

When the Magic of the Muse Is Not Enough

When I started writing more frequently during my time as an MFA student, I realized these occasional “natural prompts” were not numerous enough to sustain the number of poems I needed to be writing. I knew I needed to get over my illogical disdain of the writing prompt.

Sometimes, writers have dry spells. For me, however, I’ve discovered “dry spells” are simply times when I’m not being externally stimulated to write. These times, more than ever, I need prompts.

Benefits of Using Prompts to Write

Prompts are a way to artificially stimulate the writing process. And it’s okay that it’s artificial! I don’t need to know where I’m going when I start a poem, but I do need an inciting idea. Prompts provide that for me. I’ve found this quote from Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town to be very true in my own writing: “A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.” A prompt delivers a nice, packaged “triggering subject” from which to write towards a “generated subject.” When the poem is finished, it’s impossible to distinguish between a poem I wrote from an artificial prompt and one I wrote from a natural prompt, because in both cases the prompt gave me a triggering subject. Once I got going, the generated subject revealed itself and might have little or no clear relation to the triggering subject. Thus, in edits, the lines about the triggering subject are often deleted, and the prompt disappears altogether.

Where to Find Good Writing Prompts

Now, post-graduation, I have not given up the practice of using prompts for my poems. I have books full of prompts, which I would recommend to any poet needing help: The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell is pretty much 100% prompts and writing exercises. The Poet’s Companion, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, has excellent writing advice as well as great chapter-end prompts. Poets & Writers posts prompts for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry on their website weekly. The latter recommendations are especially good for days when you really want to immerse yourself in a prompt and maybe learn something along the way!

This time of the year is my favorite for writing prompts. Two years ago, I began participating in NaPoWriMo—National Poetry Writing Month—which happens, of course, in April, National Poetry Month. The “official” NaPoWriMo website posts a prompt each day for the entire month. I write a poem each day all through April, and I find that the constant production is great for my poetic muscles. It also forces me to move out of my usual subjects and write about unexpected things. I turn to researched poems about historical and biblical figures, or to bits of interesting scientific or medical news. I discover new tools available on the internet to spark interesting triggering subjects. My poems become more experimental because, since I’m writing a poem every day, I don’t feel pressured to have each one be good.

I have embarked on my third year of writing a poem each day for the month of April, and I’ve been looking forward to this since February. It’s now become a ritual of spring for me, a time of growth that coincides with the waking of the natural world. And I’m a prompt lover now, fully converted to the practice of using whatever works to write myself toward the next good poem.

 

 

Hannah Marshall, Poet

Hannah Marshall lives in south-central Illinois, where she works as the advising editor for the literary journal The Scriblerus. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Daily, New Ohio Review, The Madison Review, Anglican Theological Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Converse College.

 

Feature Photo by Tyler Nix.

Interview with Educator & Poet, Tyree Daye

Tyree Daye, Educator & Poet

Listen to MFA Creative Writing candidate, Marlanda Dekine interview Tyree Daye, a poet and educator of University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Daye is also the author of two poetry books,  Cardinal and River Hymns, a 2017 APR/Honickman First Book Prize winner.

Daye is a Cave Canem fellow, he also won the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival Langston Hughes Fellowship, the 2019 Diana and Simon Raab Writer-In-Residence at UC Santa Barbara, and a 2019 Kate Tufts Finalist. Daye was also awarded the 2019 Whiting Writers Award.

LISTEN TO TYREE DAYE’S INTERVIEW

YouTube interviews are captioned.

Marlanda Dekine – Sapient Soul

Poet Marlanda Dekine-Sapient Soul is a poet, author & recording artist from Plantersville, SC. Her work has appeared in Emergence Magazine, the Screen Door Review, Flycatcher Journal, Spark & Echo Arts, and Minerva Rising. Marlanda is an MFA candidate at Converse College, the 2019 Fresh Voice of the Year, awarded by SC Humanities, and the 2018 Emrys Keller Cushing-Freeman Scholar.