Colleagues of mine recently asked me to ‘teach’ them how to write first-person narratives using interview transcripts. What method did I use? What were the steps I followed? How long should they be? Did I edit out stutters and conversational fillers? Did I correct grammar?
They knew I had written first-person narratives before and knew that I advocated it as a honest and accessible form of sociological writing. That is true, so I was happy to comply. However, what happened next surprised me. I found it incredibly difficult to describe how I edited a transcript or why I made the editorial decisions I did. Instead of a series of techniques to be learnt, I found myself coming back to the form of relation I was in when undertaking the editing. What follows is one of many attempts to describe how and why I work with interview transcripts.
I write short first-person narratives. I edit them down from longer interview transcripts. The transcripts come from academic projects I’m involved in. A few years ago, Ann, Andrew and I wrote a book comprised entirely of such narratives. The book is On Bondi Beach. In these narratives we meet a variety of people who share their experiences of Bondi – a young spearfisher free diving at night, a shoreline walker watching the sun wobble on the horizon as it rises over the ocean, a restauranteur talking about the family restaurant he opened on Campbell Parade in 1978, the coordinator of a local drop-in centre speaking about her work, sitting with people’s pain, listening.
Writing the first-person narratives for On Bondi Beach was a great pleasure and it’s work I continue to do. It isn’t exactly intellectual work, like the other academic work I do. My aim is not to interpret or analyse the transcripts, to uncover hidden meaning or draw out the broader implication of their words. I don’t use the transcript to propose new theories or affirm existing ones. The transcript is not a ‘text’. Nor is it ‘data’. It contains words that describe some aspect of social experience recorded in an interview: a floating feeling, described by Craig; an experience of acceptance and wholeness, related by Alex; an awareness of our smallness, expressed by Clare. The words draw me into the experience they describe. My aim, in writing the narrative, is to convey that.
Staying Close to the Experience
To convey the experience, I need to stay to the words of the person who describes it. Natalie Goldberg offers this advice about staying close to words in her excellent book, Writing Down the Bones.
“The terrible thing about public schools is they take young children who are natural poets and story writers and have them read literature and then step away from it and talk ‘about it’.
The Red Wheelbarrow
BY WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
So much depends/ upon / a red wheel barrow /
Glazed with rain / water / beside the white chickens
‘What did the poet mean by the ‘red wheelbarrow’? Did he mean a sunset? A chariot? And why was it ‘glazed with rain’? So many questions. He meant nothing so much as a wheelbarrow, and it was red because it was red and it had just rained. So much depends on it because poems are small moments of enlightenment – at that moment the wheelbarrow just as it was woke Williams up and was everything. Poems are taught as though the poet has put a secret key in his words and it is the reader’s job to find it. Poems are not mystery novels. Instead we should go closer and closer to the work. Learn to recall images and lines precisely as the writer said them. Don’t step away from their warmth and fire to talk ‘about’ them. Stay close to them. That’s how you’ll learn to write. Stay with the original work. Stay with your original mind and write from that” (Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, 55).
To write the narratives I need to see the rain on the wheelbarrow. When I am close to the experience I can repeat it. I know how to repeat it, which words to include. I don’t need to possess a lot of theoretical knowledge to do this. I just need to be interested. The awesome majesty and unremitting grace of social life is all around us, even in the most mundane of activities. Especially there. All we have to do is pay attention. The transcript gives me a chance to do this.
Being with the Poem
Paying attention is a relationship. It involves the opening of my being to the being of the person speaking the words and to their experiences. This doesn’t require great skill or extensive training. As Roger’s says of his client-centred therapy, it is less a matter of the interpretive skill of the analyst, than it is the cultivation of certain attitudes towards the client (Rogers, Carl Rogers: Dialogues, 10). It is a willingness to accept what is said. To hear it with one’s whole being. To do that I need to enter into the phenomenal world described by person speaking and feel it, as if it were my own.
“In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations being about a change of being. It is as though the poet’s being were our being” (Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, xviii).
My first inkling of the intersubjective quality of paying attention arose when I was working on a narrative by Craig, a Bondi surfer.
You know I was talking before, the stress of life, things that you’ve got to deal with and you can come down to the beach and go out in the surf and as soon as you get a wave, it’s gone. It’s just out of your head and all you’re thinking about is surfing and being out there. And you get times when there are big lulls in the water and you are just floating in the water. It gives you that little bit of peace and time to think and you’ve got nothing else out there but time to think in between the waves. You get a bit of clarity out there. It’s like a bit of a meditation. You’re like at ease out there. Everything slows down and you get time to think.
I’ve seen guys who are just animals out of the water, just animals [laughs]. And they get out in the surf and they are just totally different people. They lose all that tension and whatever they want to do. It just makes everyone a bit more calm, you know. I think it’s like going back to how people were born in water and they used to give birth in water because it’s a natural feeing. We are all made of water. It’s like water is a relaxant to us. Like you can just go out there and lie on your back out there in the water, and just lie on your back and it’s like a great feeling, even just to lie in the water. Like the whole place is water isn’t it? The planet, we’re made of it, everything
When I received his words I could feel his experience. Time and space shifted. No longer standing outside the experience evaluating it or trying to understand it, I was right there. I could feel the waves lapping against my body. I could smell the salt. I knew that smell and the particular quiet that awaited me when I swam out past the waves. My understanding was empathetic. It was drawn from experience.
‘There is only one teacher. What is that teacher? Life itself. And of course, each one of us is a manifestation of life; we couldn’t be anything else’ (Beck, Everyday Zen, 16).
The process of writing the narrative is basic. I read the transcript. I make notes and underline passages. I ‘sit with it’. Then I edit it down and arrange it in a more structured, narrative form.
When I am in the experience the editing is easy. I know which passages to include, which to leave out. I know how to arrange it on the page. Sometimes those decisions surprise me. I thought I would organise the narrative around a certain comment, addressing a particular theme. But something else finds its way on to the page. Although I can be surprised by what insists on being included, I never feel uncertain. There is a concrete, ‘just this’, quality to the process of editing the transcript.
‘The attention, the experiencing is the authority, and it is the clarification of the action to be done’ (Beck, Everyday Zen, 17).
A Direct Encounter
‘The relation to the Thou is direct. No system of concepts, no foreknowledge, and no fancy intervene between I and Thou. The memory is itself transformed, as it plunges out of its isolation into the unity of the whole. No set purpose, no greed, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou. Desire itself is transformed as it plunges out of its dream into the appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about (Buber, Way of Response, 49).
When I work with a transcript I want to work with it directly. I want to see it as it is: not as an instance of a more general rule, not as an exemplar of an abstract principle, not as data or text. This part isn’t easy. To enter into that kind of relation I need to forget my sociological training. I need to let go of the result I was aiming at, put aside the theoretical frameworks and the systems of knowledge I have used to get this far. I have to be present to the concrete reality of this person. My theories and my schemas can’t do that. They are intended to abstract, to separate, to group together and divide by class or type. They give me a being in parts. It isn’t a living truth I can feel, see and hear with my whole being. When approached through the tools of critical inquiry, the living truth contained in the transcript is obscured. It is dissected, ripped apart and taken out of my being. I am left standing above it, looking down.
This does not mean that the theories and the frameworks that have informed my academic interests are absent. How could they be? I have spent half of my life reading philosophy and sociology, studying theory. That education is part of my being. It comes with me into the relationship. If you read On Bondi Beach carefully, with an ear for these things, you will hear the theories Ann and Andrew and I were working with. You will hear Bachelard and Buber. You will see ecological being and custodial belonging. You will recognise gift and grace. How could it be otherwise?
But the narratives in that book are not there to serve the concepts. They do not exist to demonstrate the veracity of our frameworks. We did not approach the experiences conveyed in the narratives as instances of more general laws that might be used to understand them. There is nothing to stop you employing such principles to make theories out of those narratives. Very good theories could be constructed that way. But the theory would be an abstraction. The narratives are what they are. They are brief encounters with someone’s living truth. They describe concrete reality. When you read them, you can stay close to the warmth and fire of their words. You can receive them as they are.