Research first, ask questions later: An autoethnographic exploration of getting lost looking for the research question.

‘The brain is a wonderful thing. It starts working the instant you’re born and never stops until you must write something creative on deadline.’ Arne Dietrich, 2012

 ‘What has been will be again, What has been done will be done again, There is nothing new under the sun.’

 (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV, 1973)

I feel as if I have walked into my mother's quilting room, and someone has set off a cherry bomb. There are scraps of fabric, and half-finished projects, and bolts of material collected for their aesthetics but not even cut into yet. And rather than working from a pattern, I am attempting to create my own pattern from scratch, nay, I am going to pull pieces of fabric out almost at random and try to follow the pattern that instinctively emerges! Creativity is a series of choices, some arbitrary some deeply thought through, some well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful. The creative process often involves making any decision at all, so that only afterward you can reflect and decide whether it was the correct one or not--always thankful that at least in writing, unlike life, you can go back and make revisions. Your first choice does not always have to be the final one

Making Decisions

In considering my practice as a writer, and theatre-maker I have often noted the difference between what I enjoy reading and viewing and my own unique voice. For the past decade, I have experimented with style, genre, and voice, analyzed the consistent themes within my work, set out intentionally to answer broader questions about society and culture, and written with the intended audience, and even theatrical space in mind.

The first play I ever wrote was for a theatre in education company. I was given set parameters, told what themes to explore, knew who my audience would be, wrote for a specific ensemble of actors and a with whom I had a collaborative working relationship. I understood what limitations existed regarding set and costume design. I told myself it didn't have to be good; it only had to be finished, after all, I would be working closely, and collaboratively with a team of people to improve it during the rehearsal period.

From there I have built a body of work, which although changing in genre, scope, audience, and intention was continually driven by an understanding of the theatrical medium.

‘Nyabaru Town’ is about two young girls who move to live with their father in the mining town of Newman. It is a loose adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal animated feature ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and builds on the imaginative play of my childhood growing up in that same mining town.

The initial idea came about because I wanted to explore the Australian Gothic genre, particularly the concepts of a white woman’s place in and relationship to the land, reminiscent of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and the works of Elizabeth Jolley.

Asked to embark on a practice-led research project, I decided to adapt the first fifteen pages of this half-written play into a novel.


Launching myself into the research part of the practice-led research, I found myself re-reading the books of my childhood. ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ the ‘Little Women’ series, even some old Enid Blyton. I thought about how different my own child’s experience of growing up in the city in the ‘nauteens’ compared to mine growing up in the bush in the nineties. I cannot interest her in the Louisa Meg Alcott and Francis Hodges Burnet. She reads a few pages and asks, where are the dragons?

I found it amusing that my child who is so similar to the character written about in these very books, has no interest in reading said books and meeting these characters that remind me of her. Her childhood experience is so very different to mine it seems almost alien.

My intention was to explore questions around the impact of technology on people's relationships with each other, and to the land; and as a white woman with a colonial heritage what was my relationship to the land I have loved and called home? Can we belong to the land, and to each other, or are we doomed to become increasingly isolated in a world of networked communication and endless consumption? And what was the cost of technology, and our disengagement to the land, to the outside, on the family unit?

Launching myself into the research, I had also begun to ask, what was the cost of technology, and our disengagement from a community and the land on childhood? If it takes a village to raise a child, how has the global village impacted childhood and the stories we tell about it?

My story about growing up in Newman, attempting to capture something of the old and the new, was evolving into a book I can give to my child, the avid reader that will excite her imagination, while reflecting the real world that she lives in, along with providing a window into my own childhood experiences. I want to give her a literary key to the freedom and dangers of the bush, see if I can’t extend that innocence for a few years longer.

Delving Deeper

When I began this project, both the scoping paper, and even the original seed for ‘Nyabaru Town' way back when I was thinking about myself, my childhood, the land I grew up in, and the gothic tradition of approaching that land from an alien and mystical perspective. I assumed eco-critical theory, post-colonial theory and an exploration of humanities relationship to the landscape would inform my writing, and of course, these are all still relevant influences. However, as the time drew near to submit my assignment, having already written a first draft of the first two chapters I began to realize that childhood was an emerging and significant theme of the work.

Andrew Melrose, in his keynote speech delivered at the 2011 Australasian Association of Writing Projects, opens with the statement:

‘Anyone who works in the field of children’s literature as an academic discipline or in the field of writing children will be all too well versed in the (im)possibility of producing child-centered writing and culture.’
(Melrose, 2011)

Melrose goes on to explore in depth about the power-dynamic existent in children's literature, a field where the target audience and the writer are rarely if ever the same. Quoting Jaqueline Rose's discussion of Peter Pan, in bringing up the idea of liminal space, that exists between the Adult as the maker, and the child as the receiver. Pointing out that other disempowered groups can operate under a banner such as feminism (Melrose, 2011), there is no such thing as ‘Childism,' and yet children are the most vulnerable members of our society. The simple fact that often the choice of literature and even the delivery is controlled by the adults who buy, teach from and read the books to the children, problematizing this issue further.

Vassiliki Veros, from the University of Technology Sydney, makes similar arguments about the curation of children's literature and its unintentional biases in his discussion on paratextual reading and marginalizing children's reading experiences. Veros argues that contemporary children often read para-textually, and are not considered by libraries, and literary institutions. Not only disallowing children to think of themselves as readers but also discouraging reading for pleasure. (Veros, 2016)

What perhaps Veros, and Melrose overlook is that all adults were children once. And for the primary adults in young children's lives, their parents, and teachers, the gap between childhood and adulthood may not be as long ago as it is for the academic or even the successfully published children’s author.

After all, at 32 and firmly classified as a ‘millennial,' much to my great chagrin, and my childhood is not that long ago. I am also a widely produced children's playwright with a background in youth work, teach approximately 243 children aged 4-18 drama every single week, am a mother to an almost eight-year-old, godmother to a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I am surrounded by children every day. And every day the small human I live with reminds me of both the similarities and the differences between our experiences of childhood.
Feeling marginalized, misunderstood, misrepresented, silenced, shaped, shifted, controlled and powerless is very much a universal childhood experience. ‘What has been, will be again.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV 1973)

Putting Theory into Practice

I figured it was time to do a little ethnographic and phenomenological research. I sat down with my captive case study participant and started to ask her about her experience of being a child. Not an easy task, when the subject tends to burst out into spontaneous, improvised rock songs about cats, and to give me lengthy descriptions of her alternate universe, ‘Hazeltopia,' (named after her of course.)

My child began to respond to my questions by asking me about my childhood. I remembered asking similar questions of my mother when I was a child.

"Tell me about when you were little," is the title of a blog post by child psychologist Karen Young, exploring the importance of storytelling in childhood. Young’s discussion does not revolve around literary stories recounted by published authors, but real-life stories told by parents to their children about their experiences of their childhood.

‘Parents are the most influential, most intriguing, and important person in their lives and they want to know everything about them. Want to know about the person you were when you were little, the mistakes, adventures, and risks. Teenagers want stories that tell them it is safe for them to tell their own. You've been through what they are going through, made the same mistakes and had the same fears. The most important parts of the human experience don't change that much from generation to generation. Hopes, fears and who we open our heart to. What was important in your family? What trouble did you get into, what did you do for fun, what were the rules? They want to know about our misadventures.’ (Young, 2016)

Let me reiterate, one phrase from this excerpt ‘The most important parts of the human experience don’t change that much from generation to generation.’ (Young, 2016) Or as King Solomon put it, ‘what has been done, will be done again.’

My daughter, and the children I encounter do not share my childhood experience of growing up in a small town. Hazel's adventures largely occur behind a computer screen, with her nose in a book, or while playing make-believe in the cubby space below her loft bed. Then again, my childhood was equal parts riding my bike to visit friends, playing in the nearby hills, and behind a computer screen, or with my nose in a book or playing make-believe in the built-in closet in my bedroom. As Jacqueline Rose and Andrew Melrose pointed out children's literature happens in the space between the adults and the children. At this point, I began to think quite seriously about the liminal space between the writer and the reader, no matter who their target audience is. Perhaps this would be my question, an exploration of writing for the other, versus writing for self?

Developing Theory Through Practice

Tackling my draft and rewriting from the younger daughter's perspective was not as easy I thought it would be. Firstly, because as a writer I am not as interested in writing for children as I am writing a good story. Secondly, because I found it a real struggle to pitch correctly at the right age group. When I began this project, it wasn't about writing for young people it was about writing an Australian Gothic. Along the way, I have become entangled with ideas around writing for and about childhood, researched writing about the land and writing for children, focussed my literature review on children's stories and academic papers on writing for children. I wanted to pick a question and let that question drive the research. The writer in me rebelled against this as soon as I hit the ‘studio.’ After all, when I write, it isn’t always to answer some question to contribute to academia.
If this process were to answer a question about writing for children, then I would start from scratch. Get in a room with a bunch of children, and interview them, then ask children to be my ‘beta readers,' give me feedback. Workshop the script, or novel, or interactive media with the intended audience because that is my usual practice when developing new work. And the end goal would not be learning something new about the creative arts or adding to a body of knowledge; it would be about creating the best work possible.

With time running out and the submission deadline fast approaching, I began to rephrase and reframe my question for the third, or fourth, or fifth time, I had lost count. Daniel Mafe, in his Ph.D. paper for the Queensland University of Technology, discusses the concept of ‘tension between the ‘articulate' representation and ‘inarticulate' affect,' (Mafe, 2009).
Mafe contends that due to the complexity of arts practice, there is a state of ‘profound unknowing’ that accompanies creativity and works against the determinism of hypothesis (research question) leading to an eventual thesis (conclusion) in practice-led, or creative arts-based research projects. Mafe states in the opening of his paper:

‘While my primary methodological strategy is practice-led research, there are key problems within this paradigm that I want to address. I wish to establish that the research strategy is far more dynamic, fluid and epistemologically uncertain than previous descriptions indicate. It is my contention that practice-led research outlines often misrepresent what is being done because they underestimate the significance of epistemological uncertainty.’ (Mafe, 2009)

This uncertainty, this process of write, and rewrite, and rewrite until at the very end you discover what the work is and even then, not knowing for sure if it the work is done or if you are just done with the work. This seems to contradict the idea of beginning with a research question in the first place. Certainly not one that is limited solely to the content and genre, or even target audience of the work.

Do I want to rewrite my work to focus on my daughter as a target audience so that I can sell a scoping paper to my university assessor? Or do I want to use this assignment to learn about practice-led research, or am I using practice-led research to learn about writing for my target audience? Or am I using my writing to learn about the creative process, and if so what am I trying to learn? Can I serendipitously discover through action, and reflection something I previously did not know about my creative practice, and through this contribute to a wider body of knowledge? When is it research and when is it just practice? And if everything has been seen, and done before, and there is nothing new under the sun, then is it ever possible to genuinely generate new knowledge? After all the academic sceptics, and philosophers among us would question whether anyone can ever truly know anything at all.

Even if I can resolve my epistemological questioning, which seems particularly challenging when considering the field of creative fiction writing where subjectivity dictates that knowledge is even more ephemeral than it must be in other research fields—how then do I know what knowledge is already out there? It is a big sun, and ten weeks seems hardly enough time to have discovered every paper, and study, and relevant piece of literature underneath it before claiming I have contributed something new.

Psychology Professor Arne Dietrich in his paper for the American University of Beirut entitled ‘You're gonna need a bigger boat,' explores how ideas are ‘assembled unconsciously and enter the conscious mind in fully finished form.' (Dietrich, 2012)

‘…creative ideas seem to be deliberately designed to defy empirical enquiry. There is something elusive and mystical, perhaps even sacred about them, isn’t there? They come as they please and there seems little you can do to force their appearance.’ (Dietrich, 2012)

Dietrich goes on to explore a myriad of theories about how the brain organises, recalls and generates ideas. Dietrich concludes that while we may assume ideas come from nowhere, in fact, a myriad of unconscious processes, are churning away beneath the surface as our mind tests out multiple variations, before landing on the ultimate selection.

Robyn Stewart defines practice as drawing on our ‘creative energies…to respond to situational exigencies with spontaneous acts of mindful and creative expression.’ (Stewart, 2003). Discussing the differences between those who research artists, and artists-researchers, she goes on to say:

‘If we wish as artist-researchers to challenge the traditional theory practice duality, then we also need to re-think established notions of knowledge and to understand that we become theory builders when we position practice and the acts of production to embody and express theory.'

I want to write about my childhood and the land in which I grew up. I want to explore how my daughter's experience of childhood has changed due to technology, and an urbanised experience of growing up. In ‘Nyabaru Town' not only do I give myself the opportunity to revisit the place of my childhood, but the opportunity to place a character the same age as my child in that environment. To explore the disconnect, between the stories we tell our children about what is dangerous, (scary strangers, the sun, crossing the road), and the things that are destroying the world (consumerism, break down in family relationships, social isolation, climate change.)

I feel pressure to write this story for my child, for an audience, for a publisher, for academic research purposes, for future readers. After all, I am constantly told to consider my audience. And yet, and yet, so often when considering my future audience, writing to please the gate-keepers, even considering my ‘ideal reader' as Roland Barthes would encourage me to do, that unconscious creative flow suddenly dries up.

Around the third rewrite, from third person to first person, from the child's perspective, I went back and re-read every tutorial response I had written for this unit so far. While I have been slaving away at my creative artefact, researching diligently, taking studious notes, even keeping my first writing journal, I have as quickly as if I was throwing together a meal with the ingredients I happened to have in the kitchen written a complete novel. An entirely different novel, unrelated to this scoping paper, and the creative artefact I have been using as the ‘practice' through which to lead my research.

Deciding that I was tired of the constant battle to please gatekeepers and assessment panels, I took one of my first full length plays and turned it into a novel with the aim to self-publish through Amazon Kindle. I wrote a short novel in less than a week, sent it out to beta readers, doubled it in length, and continued to work into it and onto it, learning all the while about my creative process, and first reviewers have universally enjoyed it. They have all had opinions, and ideas about how it should be different of course, and I have taken and left feedback according to what I have found useful and inspiring.

This secondary creative process has been eye-opening. Writing is something I have always done due to some compelling internal instinct that drives me to keep on telling stories no matter how difficult, time-consuming and lacking in monetary reward. Often writing first drafts and rewriting fifteenth drafts have felt entirely maddening. I am stuck in the middle of that explosive mound of fabrics, and not only is the pattern not coming together I am unpicking nearly every second stitch.

The project I have worked on in my own time has been a pleasure, reworking ‘Nyabaru Town’ has been a mind-numbing chore. More unpicking than sewing you would say if you were talking to a quilter. And always in the back of my mind the questions, what am I trying to articulate? What theory am I exploring? What am I learning? What can I contribute? Is it enough? Is it new? Is there anything new under the sun?

Playwright Timothy Daly taught the first writing workshop I ever attended. He opened with the words ‘first delight yourself, and then the audience will be delighted.’ I questioned those words even then, being a natural people pleaser conditioned by society as a woman to think of the pleasure of others before I think about my pleasure.

After all, the analogy I have been using has been about craft. Craft implies that the result will serve a purpose, art suggests that the finished product will exist firstly to bring pleasure, any challenge, or question or provocation secondary to the pleasure of looking at the art. Art exists to be seen, absorbed and experienced by its intended audience. Craft, like a quilt, can be art, hung on the wall, looked at not interacted with, but ultimately quilts serve a purpose beyond the aesthetic and experiential. They go on a bed and keep someone warm.

And even in writing this analogy I have found a way to bring the craft, and the art back to the reader, the audience, the other. I write for the other, not for myself. What would happen if I wrote for myself first, and discovered who the audience was later? Pulled the pieces of material together for the pure pleasure of playing with fabric, and once I have crafted something find a use for it?
I have my answer with my other project already, I will finish it, rather than becoming stuck in the initial phases picking, and unpicking, and unpicking. I will sew it all together. And because it is not a quilt, it is a story, and words on a screen can be rewritten, I will fix it later.

Where to from here?

I promised at the beginning of this scoping paper that I would address the problem of the research question later. And here at the conclusion is as late as I can leave it. I have already written several conclusions, claiming one research question or another that I will use to drive my research. I have also written many paragraphs claiming knowledge that I have learned, and others arguing that there is no such thing as new knowledge under the sun. I have problematised the entire research question process, and I have designed methods that rely on too many research questions.
All these possible endings to this paper, draft versions ultimately spurned because they were written not to help me design my practice-led research project but to pay lip service to what I think my assessors want from me. Very late in the game, unhappy with my 'finished' scoping paper, I went back to Brad Haseman's essay on performative research and tracked down Glaser and Strauss' book The Discovery of Grounded Theory.

Grounded Theory emerged in the social sciences, due to the limitation of hypothesis testing when studying human behaviour. Glaser and Strauss set out to create a more qualitative approach to research and concluded that it was possible to generate a theory using research, rather than using research to test a theory. The argument that entering the research without a pre-conceived hypothesis would ultimately lead to more objective results and allow for unexpected outcomes to occur. (Glaser, Strauss 1967)

From these fathers of qualitative theory, I reread Brad Haseman’s article referenced throughout so many of our lectures, and in my fellow student’s tutorial responses. Haseman’s theory of performative research argues for something even more adventurous than what I am beginning to consider, not only ‘diving in’ without a research question but also presenting that research using the medium of the practice—practice as research a step past practice-led research. (Haseman, 2006)

While I am not attempting to produce creative work that can stand as exegesis, and medium all at once, I am arguing for the value of ‘diving in,' or undergoing the studio based, phenomenological, ethnographical and qualitative research first without a preconceived hypothesis or specific question driving the process. Not to argue that I aim to have no purpose or point at all. I am consciously aware of the themes inherent in the work, and the questions I am asking myself about the nature of story-telling, the relationship between the audience and the reader, the problem of making and justifying a knowledge claim in a creative and entirely subjective field.
Instead, I am suggesting that there is some argument for eschewing the central research question, to drive practice-led research. After all, if the question is leading the practice, is the practice genuinely driving the research? Where is the serendipity and flexibility in choosing one central problem, and stubbornly sticking to it, to the exclusion of perhaps creating good work or following those unconscious creative practices? Haseman argues that practice led researchers construct experiential starting points that drive both the practice and the research concurrently, calling this an ‘enthusiasm of practice.' (Haseman 2006)

As a creative practitioner who has always worked hard to justify my work, what it is about, why it is important, how it benefits the audience this concept of starting with something as personal as enthusiasm is challenging to me. After all, how far is this idea, from Timothy Daly's advice to first delight ourselves? If the practice in practice-led research is primary, as Haseman contends, then it seems to follow suit that the practice itself should be a sufficient driver to generate theory.

Therefore, I shall set out with an enthusiasm, willing to first delight myself and see what I discover. I have already discovered so much, it seems to follow that I will throughout this process generate more knowledge coming to a succinct and articulate theory of practice to put forth in my exegesis. If, there is something new under the sun to discover, after all.


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One thought on “Research first, ask questions later: An autoethnographic exploration of getting lost looking for the research question.

  1. Very interesting Jessica I know your Mum has also written a book. Did you know that my fathers mother had a sister Molly Skinner who also was published after writing a book in conjunction with DHLawrence I think it was The boy in the bush but not sure. She also wrote The fifth sparrow which was more about our family. You could look it all up if interested. So you have writing in your bloodline. Love Grandma

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