Research Writing: Oh, the places you will go.

Writing advice is superabundant.
One of the ideas: have a structure. Have a plan.
Like research projects that say what they are going to find out before they start: Bollocks.

The writing process, like any decent research process, is not about getting to the place you think you want to get to, unless you are writing propaganda or porn. No, it is about exploration. As Ursula Le Guin and many others say, their writing develops characters and these characters develop something like a will. They will not do as the authors want them to. The story heads off in different directions. Similarly the process of research. It is a process that surprises.

Of course there are the mundane and very processual research efforts. Given that we know the 26 sporadic finite simple groups and the families of finite simple groups, we can now go through a case by case study and determine some property for each of them. That is research as well. And not unimportant research. And it probaby will surprise you too, when you do it. There is writing that takes known results or known ideas and explains them.

But the writing that we are interested in is the writing that is filled with surprises, like the research, like the exhibitions, like workshops, like music. We want to be surprised, overwhelmed, gobsmacked, accidentally seduced. If we see a Kiss show, we know what awaits us. If we visit the second and third stages of a festival, we open ourselves to surprises. If we go to some small obscure club; who knows what might happen.

Even writing this text fragment, we have taken surprising tangents and seen / learnt and understood a few more things. Like the piles of screwed up paper on a mathematician’s floor, some of them are dead ends, metaphors and ideas that do not really go anywhere, that emerge as wild conjectures and then, upon inspection, die the death of not making sense, having contradictions, or being trivial observations that seemed oh-so-important as they arose.

Every attempt at explanation starts a process of exploration that leads, wonderfully often, to new insights.

More than a structure and a plan, writing and research needs a really big waste paper basket.

Lots of things go wrong. Ideas need to be followed in order to see where they go. Things need to be built and tested. What do they act like, do they stay up? How is the movement, the sounds, the shadows, the view? Working with students over many years, we try and encourage a slowing down, a proper inspection of the things that at first view “do not work” but actually works differently to how it was expected. We have come to accept that most people do not like this. When they want a thing they want that thing. Seeing what happens, a lack of goal oriented teleological actions, letting the truth emerge, even if it takes a long time, is not something most people will accept. They want decisions, actions, results.

This perhaps explains a certain lack of acceptance of futures thinking. For too many people futures reminds them of the stock exchange (where there is a class of investments called Futures dealing with the prices of pork bellies or barley) or pension planning, but not about thinking “what if?” There is too much of: Futures Thinking is planning, Futures thinking is a schedule, an investment plan, regular savings and a downpayment. Things that are, in too many senses, as dull as dirt. Or mere speculation, where the future is about winning the lottery, travelling to the stars or something else equally unlikely. And thus futures thinking gets pushed to the back burner as a drab practicality or a waste of time. However the space between is huge. The imagination and exploring of possibilities allows a vast range of outcomes. What if we tried things out like this? What if we twisted the payment scheme? What if we demanded certain standards from people in power? What if we turned our backs on destruction?

Futures thinking is not natural, although the Kedge team have reasons to claim that it is. It is a literacy that we can learn, like we can learn to read and write and add up the amount of lumber we need to built a hut or multiply to find out how many cups of flour we need for three cakes, use an iPad or an Android phone, power tools or a pencil.

“Draw a straight line and follow it” is a piece from minimalist composer La Monte Young. Writing is like that.

Start a story, a thought, a speculation and follow it. Making up a song, rapping, doodling and sketching. Research is like that. Futures thinking is like that. The internal logics that you create as you go are carried on. If you draw a line aimed at a flagpole on the other side of the field and follow the direction with your eyes on the prize, you will get to the flagpole. If you start the line, then just focus on the line, what’s in the grass, following the lay of the land and the paths of ants, who knows what you will find on the way? Oh, the places you will go.

This reflection is part of our research within Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA), an art-based research project of Design Investigations (ID2) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Time’s Up, supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) on the part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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