Performative Writing

I take a breath and begin to write my thesis.

The woman pulls at the line, hand over hand, reaping the harvest of her laundry. She hesitates, recognizes the pull of resistance, an unexpected weighting. She observes wrestling angels caught on her clothesline, tangled with her husband’s longjohns, a play of light and movement and sound that startles her imagination, and amused, she reaches out to intercept.

She has not yet recognized the possibility that is us.

I stare with disbelief at the unexpected paragraph. Who is this woman bringing the clothes on the line appearing on my computer screen? What is she doing in my thesis?” And who is struggling inside her husband’s longjohns?” Little do I know that my opening paragraph embodied all that was to spell performative inquiry into being.

What learning becomes possible when we release ourselves from our expectations, and surrender to that which arrives on the page? Performative inquiry performs writing as performative explorations interweaving narratives of singular moments of lived experience and reflection into performative texts of learning, breath by breath.

Performative writing as scholarly writing abandons conventional academic text, dispels third person detachment, interrupts linearity, avoids the explanatory, the expected. Performative writing mischievously plays with space, time, form, metaphor, writing knowing, and not knowing into presence, making visible the gaps between. Performative writing is evocative, accoustmatic, poetic, performative, inviting recognition, resonance, and interstanding through the imagination, listening, meaning making and active participation embodied in the presence of the reader.

Initially, when I wrote my doctorate thesis, I struggled with language and representation, wondering how to conserve in my writing the integrity of my experience when creating plays with children, when engaging in role dramas with post-secondary students, from whom I had learned so much. I did not want to engage in an explanatory text: how could I perform stops, moments of recognition, and emergent learning on a page? Scholar Jacques Daignault (2005), whose ideas on writing I first encountered in 1995, offers invitation and permission to imagine scholarly writing differently. Daignault proposes seven rules of writing:

welcome words, welcome characters, welcome the body, emotions, welcome intertextuality, welcome grace, welcome the unknown. Create a space for others to enter in.

Here was a scholar who gave me permission to engage in scholarly writing through a performative lens. Embracing Daignault’s invitation, and with the permission of my thesis committee, I joyfully and respectfully interrupted conventional academic writing as I wrote my thesis, learning along the way, that this too is possible.

Many scholars, notably, Richardson, Ricketts, Ellis, Leggo, Meyer, Snowber, Milloy, and Dunlop, among others like myself, explore autobiographical, narrative, performative, and poetic ways of writing within the academy, thus “enlarging the space of the possible” in scholarly writing, mentoring and inspiring a new generation of researchers, to write themselves into the text, to engage in literary, autobiographical, poetic, and performative as well as sociological techniques to share their research and learning. To see examples of arts based theses, go to A/r/tography PHD Dissertations. Miller (2005) proposes “writing as a place where the personal and the academic, the private and the public, the individual and the institutional, are always inextricably interwoven” (p. 31).

Performative writing, as identified by Della Pollack (1998), “is evocative. Performative writing operates metaphorically to render absence present” (p. 80), minding the gap between the known and the not yet known. “The writer and the world’s bodies intertwine in evocative writing, in intimate co-performance of language and experience” (p. 80). Pollack identifies six qualities of performative writing: evocative, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational (dialogic) and consequential. While I only came across Pollack’s article after defending my thesis, I had encountered and was inspired by the performative writing in philosophers Taylor and Saarinen’s book, Imagologies: Toward a Media Theory, in which the authors, challenge conventional font, layout, and representation, as they track the narrative and meaning making of their research together.

Similarly, in my writing, I play performatively, with text layout, font styles, tenses, visual cues, where I wish the reader to pause, to interrupt the rhythm of linear reading, and to evoke a poetic response, within which the reader, may be moved to reflection, inquiry, and recognition. Font styles, layout, tenses, indicate events in temporal, spatial or attitudinal realms (Ronai 1992, as cited in Ronai 1995). Performative writing creates a narrative poetic space of being and reflection with the hope that there is resonance, recognition, insights inspired through the reading. Writers interrupt text through fonts styles, font sizes, and text lay-out such as alternating left-justified, centered, right justified text, fragmented sentences, and open spaces. The disruption of conventional academic text are all designed to encourage readers to engage with scholarly text in ways that allow for multiple interpretations, meaning-making, feelings, and moments of recognition by individual readers.

The desire to creating poetic scholarly texts that interrupt conventional discourse is also the ambition of poetic inquiry. Prendergast (2009) writes, “Poetic inquiry is philosophically aligned with the work of poets through literary history who were and are committed to using poetry as a means to communicate experiences of memory, identity, place, relationality, hope, fear and/or desire.” And, also, “Poetic inquiry is philosophically aligned with the work of poets through literary history who were and are committed to using poetry as a means to communicate socio- political and cultural concerns, as an act of witness.” See also The Art of Writing Inquiry (2001) edited by Lorri Neilson, Ardra Cole, and Gary Knowles, Neilson for examples of scholars engaging in new ways of writing research.

Educational Insights, an early pioneer in on-line scholarly publishing, invited scholars to explore multiple ways to represent and perform their research on-line, through hypertext, image, audio, video, leading to the creation of innovative multi-vocal, autobiographical, poetic, narrative, performative texts. Educational Insights is archived on-line in the UBC Library.

I recognize with gratitude the courage of researchers who chose to reimagine scholarly writing, in their search to speak to the heart of the child within, to the senses and feelings embodied in their work, to the pulse of the lived experiences they sought to share. They have given us invitation and permission to attend to our own research, and writing, in innovative, performative, poetic ways that “split the silence” (Stanick, 2005).


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Dunlop, R., 2001. Excerpts from Boundary Bay: a Novel as Educational Research. In The Art of Writing Inquiry. Backalong, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Dunlop, R., 2002. Who will be the throat of these hours, if not I, if not you? Educational Insights, 7 (2).

Dunlop, R., 2005. Memories of a Sirdar’s daughter in Canada: Hybridity and writing home. In: Agnew, Vijay (Ed.), Diaspora, memory, and identity: Search for home. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario. 115-150.

Ellis, C., 1997. Evocative autoethnography: Writing emotionally about our lives. In: Tierney, William, Lincoln, Yvonna (Eds.), Representation and the Text: Reframing the Narrative Voice. State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 115-139.

Fels, L., 1995. In Dialogue with Grumet: Erasing the Line. Educational Insights, 3 (1).

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Fels, L., 1999. In the Wind Clothes Dance on a Line. Performative Inquiry as a (re)search Methodology (Unpublished dissertation). University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.

Fels, L., 2013. Catching my breath: In full flight over the prairies, Emotion, Space and Society.

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Meyer, K., 2006. Living inquiry: A gateless gate and a beach. In: Ashton, W., Denton, D. (Eds.), Spirituality, Ethnography, and Teaching: Stories from Within. Peter Lang, New York, NY.

Miller, R., 2005. Writing at the End of the World. University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg, PA.

Milloy, J., 2007. Persuasions of the Wild: Writing the Moment, a Phenomenology. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.

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