Guest Blog: On Scholarly Writing and Storytelling by Ruth DyckFehderau

Guest Blog: On Scholarly Writing and Storytelling by Ruth DyckFehderau

I want to begin this, first, by thanking Chris for inviting me to post on this blog. My name is Ruth DyckFehderau, and I teach English Lit and Creative Writing at University of Alberta in Canada for a few months of each year, and the rest of the time I travel and write.

Recently, I completed a storybook project for an indigenous group in Canada: The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree. Like many indigenous groups around the world, the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec have been coping with a diabetes epidemic. At this point, diabetes affects every family in the greater region (an area roughly the size of Germany and Austria combined). I was living in Eeyou Istchee (their territory) for a couple of years when they approached me with a project: fly to our nine communities, they said. Hang out with 27 individuals who are living with diabetes, write up their stories, return as often as necessary until the storytellers are satisfied with what you’ve written, and then compile the stories into a book.

Wellness Week in Mistissini, Eeyou Istchee, QC. Photo by David DyckFehderau.

The Cree envisioned the project as a type of Talking Circle in storybook format. In Talking Circles, people coming together to tell stories, to distribute information and combat misinformation, and to heal through storytelling. (Both Jo-Ann Episkenew and Gerald Vizenor have written about the ways in which indigenous stories are understood as having restorative powers.) The stories are literary creative non-fiction in a short story format with third person narrators. Most of them are about ten pages long. A few really focus on diabetes, but more of them are about life in the North – hunting, hockey, residential school histories, childbirth in the most inopportune places, etc. Originally, the audience was to be the indigenous people of Canada, and only after the book was in print did the Cree decide to make it available to a mainstream audience. The final product is here and here. You can read a sample story here.

I try to organize my time so that I’m not doing creative story writing during the months that I’m doing scholarly writing and teaching. I have learned, over the years, that scholarly writing can be like a vice grip in my brain: it can wrap itself around and utterly control my mental processes so that good storytelling becomes difficult to do.

Geese roasting over an open fire in Eeyou Istchee. Photo by David Fehderau.

At one point during this project, however, deadlines were pressing and I had no choice but to work on both simultaneously. Locked into academic mode, I hunkered down and wrote for the 2 book of stories a 20-page scholarly introduction. It had no fewer than 60 citations, it introduced themes of the book, it offered some history and analysis and documentation, and did the things that scholarly papers do.

As readers of this blog likely know from their own experiences, both scholarly writing and effective storytelling can be informative, articulate, and well written, but they’re in fact very different genres. Good scholarly writing is structured around advance organizers like abstracts and theses and topic sentences so that readers can quickly skim an article, see at a glance if it’s relevant to their research, and move on if it’s not. (Without these organizers, researching already published materials would be much more time-consuming.) Scholarly writing often has a persuasive element to it, or a section that reveals completely new information. It makes claims, backs them up with evidence, and analyzes them in arguments favoring rationality over emotionality. The sentence-level writing emphasizes precision and cites meticulously. The terminology is frequently specialized and the sentences long. And so forth.

Good storytelling, on the other hand, establishes an emotional throughline that captures the reader in the first few sentences and around which most plot and character details are structured. It might indeed contain new discoveries or evidence and epiphanies, but more than persuading the reader of something, or teaching new information, they are used to make the reader feel or care about something. The story itself is usually developed through aspects like character, plot, setting, and narrative voice. Precision is just as important as it is in scholarly writing, but good storytelling is more likely to use shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary because they tend to have more emotional clout. And those advance organizers? Anathema to a good story. The reader usually wants to experience along with the protagonist, discover the story as it happens, and not be told in the first paragraph who (for instance) killed whom in what room and with which tool. And so forth.

All this to say that, for the storytelling project I was doing, an academic introduction was completely inappropriate. It was unnecessary – other than a short overview of who, why, where, and how, a storybook needs no intro. It was redundant – all the data I had crammed into those twenty pages was something the intended audience of indigenous people already knew since their stories made up the book in the first place. And the analysis of that data, with its citations and hyper-specialized vocabulary – well, it might have intrigued a few academics. But it would have sent a signal to readers that this book was to be interpreted in a particular way and that it 3 was ultimately for an academic audience. It would have alienated the readers for whom the book was originally written (especially since English is a second language for many of them). And in so doing, it would have disrespected the very people to whom the stories belong.

Town and museum architecture in Oujé-Bougoumou, Eeyou Istchee, QC. Photo by David Dyckfehderau.

I have no defense other than it seemed important at the time. (I did say that scholarly work can be like a vice grip in my brain…) I’m happy to report that I eventually came to my senses. Blocking in and deleting those 20 pages with 6O+ citations was perhaps the most satisfying writing moment of my life.

And then I scrubbed out whatever scholarly writing still stuck to the edges of the rest of the book. The few historical notes actually necessary for context ended up in a short jargon-free afterword at the end of the book, after the glossary. Still, sixteen footnotes remained in the book and couldn’t really be omitted. So I went into them and, wherever possible, I replaced citations from the peer-reviewed journals (essential to reliable academic writing) with citations from popular magazines: the original intended readers of this book live in remote areas and are not likely to have easy access to the New England Journal of Medicine to read further in my source material, but Maisonneuve and Scientific American and Prevention sit in waiting rooms everywhere.

These days, I’m at work on another book for the James Bay Cree, but this time I won’t be drafting any scholarly introductions.

The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree won the Nonfiction Health (General) category in the 2018 International Book Awards, the Silver (tie) in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards Best Regional NonFiction (Canada East) category, and the Silver in the 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year (NonFiction Health) awards. Additionally, it was shortlisted for the Editor’s Choice (NonFiction) competition in the 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year awards, and it was a Finalist in the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards (Memoir: Personal Struggle/Health) in the NonFiction (Multicultural) Category of the 12th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards, and in the NonFiction (Health General) Category of the 12th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.


About Ruth DyckFehderau:

Ruth DyckFehderau teaches Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Alberta for a few months of each year. The rest of the time she writes (fiction and non-fiction) and travels, trying to live in other cultural environments as often as she can. She has published short literary pieces in journals and anthologies around the world, has given public lectures and conference keynotes on a wide variety of subjects, and has won awards for writing, teaching, and activism. She is currently based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her website is ruthdyckfehderau.com.