Autoethnography Concerns (possibly 1/series)

This past spring, I completed edits on what was supposed to (and may yet) be my second academic publication, an autoethnography themed on queer(ing) family. It had a very tight wordcount, so rather than submitting something new I took a much longer class assignment, picked one segment, and whittled it down until it fit. At the time I was proud of the work I did, but as that article faces limbo (the editor recently changed universities, and I haven’t braved a follow up) I find myself carrying more and more discomfort. Did I edit away the piece’s soul? Am I still telling a meaningful story? Am I telling the story in the most meaningful way? The longer I go without hearing a publication date, the more I have to talk myself down from assuming I’ve been rejected after the fact. But really, what I’m realizing, is there was a deeper layer to it that I may never have gotten to in 2,000 words (or the 3 years between the events depicted and the article’s finalization). I don’t know if retcons are exactly tolerated in academia, but I’ve always had the intention to write more, to build out to a greater work. My fear is that the longer I sit and stew over this one (imperfect? I don’t know. I haven’t even reread it since submission…) fragment, the less momentum I have to develop the greater work. It’s been two years since a (prolifically published) professor told me I could try to publish something book-length, after all, but I haven’t followed up with her since before the pandemic…

The good news is I already have a dataset to start with. Several, in fact. Arguably, too many. I save everything, so I have massive files of downloaded social media from when I was a caregiver and when I was a graduate student (and sometimes I even organize them), to say nothing of all the accounts that hold further data or stories. I have so much, it’s a bit unwieldy, even in concept. Just as I had to do with that long piece to make it fit a low wordcount, I find myself ruminating over which themes and threads are necessary to tell one core story and how to cut away everything that isn’t essential. The trouble is, as much as I value good storytelling, I more value the interconnectedness of telling many small stories in tandem and letting them fit together however they may (cf. “fish soup” in Fadiman 2012). Maybe the reader sees the connections, maybe they do not. I’m over trying to convince anyone to see things in a single way, more of a loom than a spool as threads go.

If I had my druthers, I would write an autoethnography in absentia; sometimes I think the least problematic way to tell my life story is to actually tell the life stories of everyone who has come and gone through my life (so far as I know them — acknowledging this limitation is part of what would make it my story rather than theirs). I would go beyond self-effacement to telling their lives as stories and mentioning myself as little as possible — maybe never — letting the gaps create my story through tangents and inference. This approach would not only help keep egotism and sentimentality out of the narrative but would openly antagonize the one-hero habit of Western narratives. In my story, there are heroes and there are survivors; those who tell the tale seem always to be the latter.

The trouble there is that however much I prevaricate, they aren’t my stories to tell. Sure, I can write an engaging chapter or two about the shifting demographics of East Fort Worth in the late 80s/early 90s as a focal point for the experiences of white flight, peer abandonment, academic upheaval, and gangsta-era tedium I witnessed, but without specific names and faces it’s all abstract to the reader. It’s not even the legality and CYA forms I dread (although I do dread those), it’s the ethics. Telling my story, with or without me in it, means sharing some level of intimate details about everyone else; I was just enough of a confessional blogger in the 00s (shout-outs to Xanga and LiveJournal) to know that most people don’t like being written about or analyzed as nakedly as I do routinely to myself.

And since (spoiler warning) one of the core outcomes of my story is that people grow apart, I can’t even ask most of the people whose stories fit around my own if they’d consent. (FUTURE TOPICS TANGENT; if a hyperlink appears that means I’ve written it: I am almost certainly going to draft something here soon about the process of defining boundaries of “self” when lives are so intertwined.) There’s also a whole other question about timeliness; I think there is an urgency in telling my story right now because caregiving is so front-and-center, but writing and publishing are not fast processes and with everyone already bored with the pandemic, am I already too late?

“But, G.J.,” you ask, “what’s the difference between a memoir and an autoethnography, and shouldn’t that be guiding your answer to some of these questions?” Or, some of you, “What even is an autoethnography? Is that like an autobiography?” These questions matter a lot, because even the professor who recommended I try to publish said my writing may lend itself to more non-academic publishing (which is more profitable anyway?).

But I’ve been drawn to autoethnography since before I even knew it was a thing. I independently made up the same term with roughly the same meaning around the time of Obama’s election; at the time, I plotted out an elaborate Trojan horse of social science and personal narratives that was going to convince white people to take racism seriously (and then sexism and then metaphysics; it was exactly the kind of bloated, ambitious trilogy you’d expect from a 20-something white “guy” who thought he knew something about the world). Eventually I realized I didn’t have the chops for that project, and by the time I got those from grad school I could see how arrogant and misguided the whole endeavor had always been. To this day, I wrestle with differentiating between being an interesting person (which is fleeting) and telling an interesting story (which can be timeless).

I still can’t tell you exactly what “autoethnography” is because it is many things and there are many approaches. My personal headcanon is “personal narrative with citations”. Memoirs allow more poetic license, but they’re more entertainment than education, and if you’re going to going to make a living at them you’re going to have to have one hell of a life — or at least know how to charm and embellish infinite stories from it without some kind of a reflexivity spiral (you don’t actually think David Sedaris is that wacky in real life, do you?). Autobiographies are supposed to be comprehensive, building toward death or a major accomplishment, with less expectation of attention toward cultural and political factors (at least, that’s my understanding by reputation; I don’t think I’ve ever actually read one). If you want to tell a lot of stories (or small stories within a greater arc), and you want to include more than one or two sociohistorical factors (or better yet, analyze them!), autoethnography is the way to go.

And sure enough, since autoethnography involves a process of constant reflection, we have plenty of theory and thoughts about the whys and hows. I am personally a fan of the Evocative Autoethnography approach promoted by Bochner and Ellis, but I want more social change so I also take cues from Boylorn and Orbe’s Critical Autoethnography and the intense, imaginative empathy of Tamas’ Life After Leaving… However… these all happen to have been the texts assigned by the aforementioned professor, so I must ask myself: would they still stand out if I could afford to read a dozen others? And if not, what obligation do I face to find better? It’s quite possible there exists some other approach that perfectly transcends these approaches, but I fear a proverbial wild goose chase: how significant an effort would it take to get something meaningfully better than what I already know?

I think one of the things I like the most about these scholars is that they discourage letting theory get in the way. In a way, a good story, well-told, and well-contextualized, conveys its own theory. I believe this exemplifies abductive reasoning: a wealth of incomplete data gathered toward a reasonable (if not perfect) conclusion. Done is better than perfect. These are not only the kinds of stories I’d like to tell, but the ways I’d like to tell them: acknowledging the limitations of personal knowledge and incomplete data, complementing them with social science (itself incomplete, but at least rigorous), and building toward some powerful, relevant statement to the world.

Oh yeah, a statement. A point. Trajectory. I think this was the greatest weakness of my forthcoming(?) short work. There, either the statement was methodological (that sweeping changes can culminate in mundane moments) and was severely hindered — if not entirely lost — to the heavy edits, or it was literally a funny story about going to court to change my name (to show all the queer kids out there what that was like? 🤷‍♀️). Just watch my author impact factor shoot up.

I guess I’m afraid to lose my direction in trying too hard to be meaningful; it’s what killed my interest in writing in college, after all (and somewhat implicated in why I don’t want to write fiction, even “semi-autobiographical” fiction). Then again, if I try too hard to have the trajectory first, it could muck up the remaining data collection and preliminary drafting (building them together seems pragmatic). Perhaps worst of all, the more I think about these things, the less I actually write. Not to brag, but writing engaging prose is the easiest part for me — as long as I actually do the writing.

Having sat down to get my concerns on the page here, I find that while the problems have not gone away, I feel much more comfortable wrestling with them. This is the reflexivity process, after all: acknowledge our limitations, explore ways around them, and move forward imperfectly. When I need to theorize or read up, I can, but that dataset (however large) is yet incomplete and not at all organized.

Just getting words on the page will help elucidate the process. My biggest take-away, then, is that since I currently have the time and wherewithal to get more words on the page, I should make a habit of doing so. Today, I came home from dropping the kiddo off and drafted this in an hour, far better than the weeks of hemming and hawing that presaged it.

I have even jotted down a few writing prompts for future field notes (if you see hyperlinks below, I have written about those topics since posting this entry):

  • Whose stories do I get to tell?
  • Is there an academic process to anonymization?
  • Timeliness as activism
  • How I’m organizing my autoethnography

Stay tuned.


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