Let's Write Creative Nonfiction: The New Journalism in Academic Writing


This article has been published in INADIS Blog

Alan Bryman (2012) in his book Social Research Methods once mentioned that academic writing must be persuasive and convincing. That writing style must not be rigid, soulless, or unclear. More importantly, academic writing must be well-structured so as not to confuse readers. My question is, "How can we make an academic writing that is structured and appealing at the same time?" Bryman’s explanation feels contradictive in that sense since structure equals to rigidness and rigidness is (usually) boring.

In general, academic writing is often associated as unpopular and in fact, most people expect them to be boring. However, if a piece of academic writing is meant to educate the public, don’t you think that scholars have an additional burden to improve their writing technique so the public won’t be bored by it? This dilemma is what paves the way for the genesis of a new movement in the 60s known as “The New Journalism.”

New Journalism put emphasis on a new writing technique called creative nonfiction. This technique allows scholars to convey their research findings through story-telling. Scholars must absolutely use credible facts as the basis of their story, but they can use many techniques often used in fictional work to create a compelling and evocative narrative.

Despite some criticism – notably from positivists – who called it a fake or fabricated academic work, creative nonfiction is still used to this day by scholars in the field of ethnology, feminism, and post-colonialism. Proponents of this technique claims that creative nonfiction can be read as fiction but offers an accurate level of analysis comparable with that of conventional writing. More importantly, creative nonfiction is able to delve into the 'real' truth that can’t be conveyed through conventional and positivistic methods (Caulley, 2008).

One of the main supporters of new journalism in International Relations (IR) is Elizabeth Dauphinee. Her book The Politics of Exile is considered as the first IR novel ever published (Edkins, 2013). In order to understand the gravity of this accomplishment, I believe it is necessary to read an opening statement from her work:

I built my career on the life and loss of a man named Stojan Sokolovic. He has pale eyes. He studied engineering. He was mobilized into a war that he did not start and in which he did not want to participate. He would have preferred to go to Canada, he said, but there was no way out (Dauphinee, 2010).”

In only a few words, Dauphinee has succeeded in making us empathize with a man named Stojan Sokolovic whom we know nothing about. This kind of opening statement is usually found in novels and other work of fiction. It is called ‘hook’, which is a statement made to stimulate the reader’s curiosity as to what will happen next (Caulley, 2008). However, Dauphinee is not a novelist and her work is not fiction but an actual report from her research on Bosnian War (Dauphinee, 2010). Or at least, that's what she claimed. However, this article is not made to support nor challenge Dauphinee's claim, but to show how a noncreative fiction can contribute to academic writing.

Through the example of Dauphinee’s work, we can see how creative nonfiction uses narration and dramatization to evoke the reader’s emotion. By using this technique, a scholar will be able to not only reflect the reality they see, but also manipulate it to convey a message they want to deliver. This is made possible through the use of provocative and evocative language. People who read it will be unsettled and unsure of the reality that they belief because it has been cleverly manipulated through the writer's use of words (Edkins, 2013). For example, a quote from Dauphinee’s work “The Ethics of Auto-ethnography” below can illustrate what it means to be unsettled:

You write about violence, he (Sokolovic) said. You say that fear is a violence – that the things that cause fear and insecurity are violences. But you do not know how that fear sits like a bear on my heart. You talk about fear, as though you understood what it tasted like – what it smelled like – the scent of smoldering mortar dust and artillery shells. You talk about guilt, but you look in from a place that does not allow you to see it well. Violence must be quantifiable in your world.”

Then look at the quote from “What Quantitative Research is and Why it Doesn’t Work” by Claudia Krenz & Gilbert Sax and see the difference:

Two persistent critique of quantitative experimentalism are (a) the lack of isomorphism between its measure and ‘reality’ and (b) its failure thus far to produce ‘truths’ useful to educational practice (Krenz & Sax, 1986).”

Both of those writings tries to problematize quantitative research. Both tries to deliver a message about the failure of quantitative research in reflecting 'true' reality through their measurement. However, the two quotes above give different impression. Whereas Krenz & Sax only explains why quantitative research is problematic, Dauphinee explains why the problem of quantitative research affects certain person.

Dauphinee used a victim narrative in her work. Through the testimony of Sokolovic, she delivers a message that while quantitative researchers are busy with the quantification of violence, Sokolovic is actually experiencing the true violence in an emotional manner. Dauphinee is trying to say that quantitative researchers has been ignorant with human feelings and care more about how to quantify a reality. This narration has a strong disruptive effect to make readers believe that quantitative research is indeed problematic – not only because of its methodology but also because it ignores the feeling of their research subjects.

In the end, we can see how the use of nonfiction creative technique leads to a better understanding of the truth that a scholar tries to convey. Through the use of unsettling words and dramatization of facts, a creative nonfiction work is not only accurate but also engaging to read. Most importantly, this writing technique can give voice to the voiceless and empower them to fight the injustice that is this world. This is the advantage of nonfiction creative technique compared to the conventional one. Therefore, in order to truly educate the public in any issue, including international relations, I believe that scholars need to incorporate creative nonfiction technique in their works. Not only will their work be more engaging to be read, it will also serve to empower the weak and marginalized people.

Now isn't that what scholars are supposed to do in the first place?

Bibliography

Bryman, A. (2012). Social Research Methods: 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Caulley, D. N. (2008). Making Qualitative Research Reports Less Boring: The Techniques of Writing Creative Nonfiction. Qualitative Inquiry Vol. 14 No. 3, 424-449.

Dauphinee, E. (2010). The Ethics of Autoethnography. Review of International Studies Vol. 36 No. 3, 799-818.

Edkins, J. (2013). Novel Writing in International Relations: Openings for a Creative Practice. Security Dialogue Vol. 44 No. 4, 281-297.

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