When I was young man and my brain was not yet fully formed, I wanted the writer’s life and thought enrolling in an MFA program was the ticket to all of that. Full disclosure: I wanted to be a hybrid novelist who combined the narrative beauty and romantic vision of Scott Fitzgerald with Barry Hannah’s explosive sentences and powerful themes, somehow bringing together those prose ideals with all the “original” style and subject matter I could muster. I figured I’d be writing about “the fabulous adventures of Bud,” because, well, at the time I imagined I would be living that kind of writer’s life. Imagined is the key word. But I didn’t know that then.
I had known Barry a little bit at Clemson and so it seemed only natural to apply to the MFA program at Alabama, where he then was. I applied. I got in. I received an encouraging letter from him welcoming me to the program, a letter that contained what became the most important Barry Hannah explosive sentence that would shape my writing life: “What you really should do is just go out and have a life and write about that.”
I’d like to say that is what happened. Hit the road like Lee Gutkind, wrote the scenes like Annie Dillard, walked onstage to the welcoming applause of America. I certainly imagined it would happen that way. Imagined, again, is the key word.
I tried to follow Barry’s advice. I quit the academy, sold bad FM radio to corporate accounts until the “I” that I felt I was became tired of the “me” I had become. Then I was a cook in a diner in a coal-mining town until I realized that I was a cook in a diner in a coal-mining town. During the whole of these 13.75 months of “living the writing life” I was firmly rejected by every big magazine and major publishing house to which I submitted these obvious signs of prose genius. I mailed off short stories about an FM radio salesman who murdered dull clients; a budding young writer who loses his girl to a baseball star; a once budding writer who becomes an FM radio salesman and who commits a murder of a baseball star. I also wrote a 400-page novel about naughty low hanging angels who lustily interfered in human affairs when God—who had once been a writer and a salesman—went on summer vacation. I wrote two plays about existential matters, the subjects of which I have thankfully forgotten. By then, I had accomplished full and complete failure as a writer of fiction, and the bad part was I truly knew it.
Then, one fine Sunday morning, a front-page NY Times Book Review of Barry Hannah’s Airships appeared. I was very happy for him, very sad for me. I resolved to change my life. Penn State was a few miles east of the diner. I applied for the doctoral program in Speech Communication. I got in. Two years later, in 1980, I was a very strange Speech Communication PhD, complete with an even stranger dissertation: a “rhetorical biography” of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, made stranger still by my rhetoric and social science training and a minor in—of all things—creative and biographical writing.
I got a job, but just barely. I was the last remaining candidate in what had been a long and painful recruiting year at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. The fact that I had not completed one graduate course in organizational communication, and this job was in organizational communication, didn’t seem to matter. I wasn’t expected to last.
Huntsville was a unique 20th century high tech town, half southern gothic holding fast to a past and half Von Braun rocketing into the future. In addition to teaching four courses by day and pounding out academic articles by night, I began doing some organizational culture training with rocket scientists, nuclear warfare experts, and engineers for extra money, which turned into organizational culture consulting for even more extra money, which turned into a three-piece Southern academic-slash-consulting-slash-unfulfilled writer’s life. In those rare consulting moments when I doubted my expertise but needed to sound intelligent, I usually quoted Kenneth Burke: “Motives are shorthand terms for situations,” I said seriously. Or “this is a case of perspective by incongruity” I frowned. Like many new PhDs insisting on success, I was “strategically ambiguous” and full up to my tall eyebrows on a philosophy composed of “wry codicils” and an accompanying cool demeanor comprised mostly of attitude.
Which is where this middling story of my slash-unfulfilled writing life would have ended had it not been for realizing, finally, that what Barry Hannah had told me I should do is, in fact, what I should have been doing. As an organizational cultures consultant I got paid for applying academic theories and research methods to some lofty ideas about “excellence.” Problem was that there was a disparity between the high-minded theories I was reading in the research lit and the always-conflicted lives I was working with as a consultant. Traditional methods of organizational research produced some useful generalities and fine and reliable statistics, but they could not address, were not designed to address, the lived experiences of workers and managers as they daily negotiated the challenges of making meaningful and at least somewhat whole their increasingly fragmented and all too human lives, while otherwise engaged in the business of rocket science, computer science, and engineering.
The problem in the research literature was not a theory problem, but a writing problem. Theories about organizational cultures told about the importance of stories—what Max Weber calls “the webs of significance that we ourselves have spun”—but they seldom gave us the stories. Hence, IMHO, the disparity between, as Kenneth Burke puts it, “the thatness of this, and the thisness of that.” My story and your story. What can be learned from examining other people’s lives through the looking glass of your own.
I told myself, as odd and improbable a road to a real writer’s life as it seemed, that I was uniquely positioned to address this writing problem in the Communication field. I had studied creative nonfiction and social science. Perspectives by incongruities. Like an anthropologist or investigative reporter, I did fieldwork by deep immersion in organizations and knew the theories. I had read Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, et. al., and was drawn to the power of the creative nonfiction story as a remedy for what was wrong, what was missing, from organizational scholarship: real lives of real people creating worlds out of the stuff of selves and situations.
Nor was I alone. Colleagues in the social sciences were busy adapting writing styles from the Chicago School of urban sociology and from Clifford Geertzian “blurred genres” in post colonial anthropology to invent a “new ethnography” for organizational and cultural studies, ways of writing cultures from writing scenes, characters, dialogue, and a certain messiness in the text that evoked the lived experiences, the realities, beyond it.
I also believed in a narrative epistemic, what the philosopher Sarah Worth these days has named “the third way of knowing,” the knowing what it is like to [be there, to see that, to feel this way]. I told myself that if I were successful in bringing creative nonfiction as a way of knowing as well as a way of writing into the Communication field, it would be my academic salvation. Motives, as it turned out, were in fact a shorthand term for my own situation.
So I wrote about the rocket city culture in Casing a Promised Land: The Autobiography of an Organizational Detective as Cultural Ethnographer (1989), and, after a year spent playing rhythm guitar in a southern rock band, Living in the Rock n Roll Mystery: Reading Contexts, Self, and Others as Clues (1991). Since then I’ve never looked back. What I do is what Barry Hannah told me I should do: I go out into America, live an interesting life, and write about it. Use fiction techniques but stick to what’s real. Teach the young to do the same.
That long beginning of the narrative revolution is now a long time past. Those of us in the social sciences who championed narrative approaches now find hybrids bringing forth new labels: not only a new ethnography, but narrative ethnography, narrative history, autoethnography, qualitative inquiry, creative analytic practice, and lyrical sociology. All of us owe a clear intellectual and technical debt to creative nonfiction.
More important, as narrative nonfiction embraces a stronger bond with public scholarship that is firmly rooted in credible scientific and social scientific research, those of us in the Communication field—indeed in all fields that make up the global academic enterprise—may yet find that the stories we tell among our academic selves find new and appreciative audiences “out there,” audiences that matter to the health and welfare of our educational institutions as well as to the policies that guide funding decisions across a broad spectrum of challenges. That is because it is the singular power of a compelling narrative that enables us to imagine a better future, and ultimately, to enter it.
And this time, this time, I know I’m not just imagining it.