REVIEW: Research and Lived Experience

By Press Room Contributor Bridget Lutherborrow

Friday – 2pm-3pm, The Royal Exchange

Not all of us can write about ourselves. Some of us aren’t, or don’t feel, that interesting. Some of us are more excited about exercising our empathetic muscles – in getting as close as possible to someone else’s experience. This can be part of the joy of writing, but it’s also extremely fraught. How do you reconcile your own bias with someone else’s story? How do you make sure your research is good?

Settling into the strange womb of the Royal Exchange, Chris Tse introduces the panel. The line up differs from the printed program, Rosalind Moran, Kermie Breydon and Alison Whittaker lined up beside him. They start off with a short reading each. Rosalind reads two pieces. One about an octopus, the other from the perspective of her grandfather – extremes in the exercise of getting into someone else’s head. Kermie reads from a piece about visiting remote indigenous communities in WA. Alison reads two poems, the second – a take on Dorothea Mackellar’s “I Love a Sunburnt Country” – sending the room into a hush.

The great advantage of this panel is the diversity in the writing practice and genre of the artists. For instance, as someone who writes about travel, Kermie is always present in their own work. The outcome is an intersection of Kermie’s experience and the experience of the people they write about. Chris reads out something Kermie said in an email: “I am a sponge, tell me everything about yourself.” And yet, it seems, the most honest and least biased way for Kermie to write, is to make the writing about how the sponge soaks up everyone else’s stuff.

Rosalind’s writing offers very different insights. In writing fiction you can’t point to your own bias on the page as easily. She talks about reading her great uncle’s diaries, and how that influenced his voice in her writing. Ultimately, she says, it’s impossible not to filter through your own experience, but research can be integral in doing things sensitively – for instance, when she wrote about her mother’s upbringing in Ghana. Rosalind makes the excellent point that some historical writing might be more palatable to publishers because it aligns with a certain version of history already condoned by the genre. Even supported by research, it can be difficult to tell a version of events that doesn’t fit the popular narrative.

Alison Whittaker reminds us that good writing starts with good research. This means using a wide variety of sources and finding good ones. It means researching laterally, giving away some of your power as researcher and writer. This might mean having someone else read your work before publication and giving them the power of vito. But, she says, she’s very forgiving of people who get it wrong, mostly because she feels her own writing has been exploitative in the past. “I think all writers fail their ethical obligations,” says Alison. It’s about being open to criticism.

This seemed a panel destined to be derailed by Lionel Shriver – as so many discussions have been. And it did come up. The ethics of writing other people’s stories has been a topic of hot takes and call out culture for some time. But the conversation about research and lived experience is so much bigger than that. As evidenced by this panel, each writing process is unique. It’s likely you won’t do perfect justice to your research, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.