Thursday, 14 March 2013

Osmosis and the hokey pokey: that's what creative-practice led research is all about

The past week I've focused on reading N. Katherine Hayles' How we became posthuman. It's a fascinating book that has sparked off lots of questions for me around what my creative piece is really about. It's also got me thinking about the relationship between my creative writing practice and my research; that is, how I use my research to inform my thinking about my creative practice.

Creative-practice led research is a tricky beast. It is often difficult to define the exact nature of the research/creative practice relationship, well for me anyway, but I'm going to put some thoughts down about how I see it working.

Almost three years ago, back when Dirt Circus League was a bunch of random ideas in a long-winded narrative that had no beginning, middle or end,  I stuck a sign on my mirror that encapsulated what I might want a reviewer to say about my book, once it was published. The sign says:

A Vonnegut for contemporary young adult readers... Wacky, fast-paced, original, off-beat, funny and wildly imaginative, always with an eye on the obscure and the absurd. A mash-up of neuroscience, action, dark humour and adventure with absolutely no lesson to teach.

It will be up to readers to tell me how much of that 'review' is true for the final product when Dirt Circus League is eventually published. But in terms of my PhD, and how my creative writing practice informs and is informed by my research, there are some interesting things to note about the 'review'.

From the start, it was always going to be speculative fiction. It was not going to be didactic. Like my writing hero Kurt Vonnegut, I wanted to make my readers both laugh and think and get some insight into the beauty, cruelty and absurdity of our planet earth. I referred back to the sign often but didn't try to specifically add in to the story elements from the sign, which would come across as false and implanted rather than naturally occurring. In other worlds, I wanted those elements to seep in by osmosis. And I want my research reading to do the same thing.

Research informing writing informing research

The timeline of story writing/ reading research breaks down roughly like this: 
  • July 2010- March 2011: initial reading/first draft of manuscript simultaneously
  • March 2011 - November 2011: lots of research into neuroscience and related fields (including reading my favourite Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology)
  • November 2011-May 2012: further drafts and changes to manuscript along with reading into neuroscience and related fields such as critical neuroscience and reading another important text for me, Brain Culture)
  • June 2012-October 2012: research reading, focusing on Bahktin's Rabelais and His World (my first real departure from neuroscience related reading)
  • October 2012-December 2012: another significant rewrite of the manuscript
  • December 2012 - now: reading literary criticism, some related to eco-criticism but mostly around speculative and science fiction; reading focused on posthumanism
The pattern shows intense periods focused on either researching or writing, with fewer periods where the two overlap. However, the basic plot and narrative of the story essentially hasn't changed. What the research does change in the manuscript is the deeper layers, the foundations of the manuscript and the ideas that form it. It's not so much that new ideas come into the manuscript, but that my research illuminates on what those ideas are really about. In turn, I make changes (sometimes quite subtle) that add layers of meaning to the surface story.

Coming back to Hayles' book, for example, I read a paragraph where she writes about Norbert Weiner's book The Human Use of Human Beings. Hayles posits:

'If memory in humans is the transfer of informational patterns from the environment to the brain, machines can be built to effect the same kind of transfer. Even emotions may be achievable for machines if feelings are considered not as "merely a useless epiphenomenon of nervous actions" (HU, p. 72) but as control mechanisms governing learning.'

When I read that I think about my protagonist Quarter, and how he is deliberately doing something to his body and brain that interferes both with memory and with how/what type of informational patterns will transfer from his environment to his brain because some of these patterns will now be bird patterns. I may use that thought to go back to my manuscript at some point and add in a detail, or perhaps even alter the ending slightly, to reflect that notion of the human and animal patterns within him. I'm not going to alter his character to add machine parts, or to incorporate a cyborg into the plot. Nevertheless the point Hayles raises inspires a series of questions for me about who or what Quarter really is, and what he may become.

In this way, my research dips and wiggles its fingers and toes in and out of my creative practice. It's kind of like the hokey-pokey but probably more like osmosis. Just as that sign on my mirror has influenced the type of book that Dirt Circus League is now and will become, so the research seeps its way into my creative writing, sometimes in ways I don't consciously recognise until my supervisor asks me a question about my work, and I realise that I can answer it.