Telling other people’s stories

Today was the first “real” outing for my PhD research.  I know I talk about it all the time to friends, colleagues, family, but this was a proper presentation to a group of strangers in an academic setting.

And I was nervous.

Not nervous of presenting as much as nervous of getting it wrong, of mis-representing what was shared with me.

Participants in research give so much of themselves in these interviews.  They let me see into their lives in a way that overwhelms me. I remember the first time I took a history as a medical student and the sense of awe that I was allowed access into someone’s life in a way that I would never have normally.  Collecting research data is that feeling magnified.  And even the phrase “collecting data” seems so inadequate for what is being entrusted to me.  I have to find some way of respecting that trust. And what I want to do is capture each individual story; each glimpse into someone else’s life in its entirety.

But that’s the research.  I’m looking for patterns and themes across these stories.  I need to be able to pull threads out from people’s lives, to see each idea, before weaving it back together. And I’m a person with my own experiences and memories.  There’ll be a piece of me in this research, and the research will be in me.  Creating a new story that is at the same time more, and less, than the individual elements.

Who am I to decide what to include? How can I say what matters or what is important?  What right do I have to pick and choose which stories fit my narrative? Who gave me the power to tell a story around other people’s lives?

They did.

I only have these stories because they chose to share them.   Because they allowed me in and let me listen.  Because they felt it mattered that their experiences were shared, picked over, interpreted, re-interpreted, re-told…

I’ll do my best not to mess it up.

 

 

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