Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown

By Lelia Green

Author - Lelia Green
Lelia Green (biography)

Do you use writing as a means of accessing your unconscious knowledge and understanding? The electric experience of things falling into place is a well-recorded outcome of ‘writing to find out what you want to say.’ E. L. Doctorow is credited with saying that writing a novel is “like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (no formal reference identifiable, but see Quotation Celebration). There is a sense of allowing the unfolding journey to deliver you to your destination, and experiencing the energy rush when you arrive. It’s a matter of relinquishing control and being open to the unexpected.

Australian novelist Helen Milton Bastow described an equivalent revelation. A fiction writer, Bastow had avoided researching Indigenous stories about the places of her childhood in case they overly influenced her own story telling. One day, however, she was on an eco-trail in the Coorong, South Australia, when she happened upon an information display about the local Indigenous dreamtime:

I realised that the way in which I had imagined The Coorong in Chapter Two of my novel was significantly related to aspects of the Ngarringjeri Dreaming story of Ngurunderi. I had unconsciously used two of the most important motifs of the Dreaming for The Coorong to describe the place of my dream: the central figure of a “black man”, or “Ngurunderi”, and the “Milky Way”, the “resting place of Ngurunderi”. The realisation of this unconscious connection was a powerful moment, which I felt in my body, as an emotional shock – or a combination of awe and relief. (Bastow 2003)

I experienced exactly that electricity, that energy, in writing a currently-unpublished fiction book. My lead character was the son of a British migrant who had been part of the forced migration of poor children from the UK to Australia in the 1930s. I was looking for a classic English surname that had overtones of artisan guilds. I toyed with ‘Archer’, but discarded it because I have friends with that name. I moved on to think of names with a B. In the end, my lead character identified himself to me as Nathaniel Baker.

About three years later, I finally got down to writing the novel. Imagine my surprise to find a key plot point turning on a photo of Nathaniel’s father and a dozen other youngsters in an institutional setting. The contemporaneous title given to that photo was ‘Baker’s Dozen’. Was the title a reference to thirteen people, all of whom were victims? Or was it a reference to Baker as an oppressor of twelve other children? At that time I couldn’t believe how neatly the name had fitted the plot: or the plot had fitted the name. I took a long walk to try to accommodate the jolt of energy I’d felt, and tried to untangle how the unknown unknowns of an emerging plot in written fiction had resulted in this outcome. In the end, I accepted it as serendipity.

So what are we to make of writing ‘to find out what we want to say?’ The conditions are not always favourable, but they do seem to include, in my experience:

  • being focussed for some time,
  • investing periods of concentration and attention, but
  • allowing an internal, less-conscious process to take over, as part of an
  • intense engagement with a bigger picture, that
  • enables the minutiae of detail to fall subconsciously into place
  • revealing itself as it does so.

What’s your experience of letting a story make its own way forward? Are there processes like this that you’ve used to uncover unknown unknowns in other situations?

Bastow, H. (2003). Dialogues with a body called the research journal, TEXT, 7, 1, April. (Online):

Biography: Lelia Green PhD is Professor of Communications in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. Her research expertise centres on the risks and opportunities associated with young people’s digital media use, including the digital lives of younger children aged eight years and under. She is sole-author of two books Technoculture: from alphabet to cybersex (2002), and The Internet (2010), and is a co-editor of Digitising Early Childhood (2019), Narratives in Research and Interventions on Cyberbullying among Young People (2019) and the Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children (forthcoming). She is also the author of two unpublished novels.

This blog post belongs to a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

Published blog posts in the series:
Accountability and adapting to surprises by Patricia Hirl Longstaff

How can we know unknown unknowns by Michael Smithson

What do you know? And how is it relevant to unknown unknowns? by Matthew Welsh

Managing innovation dilemmas: Info-gap theory by Yakov Ben-Haim

Scheduled blog posts in the series:

November 5: Looking in the right places to identify “unknown unknowns” in projects by Tyson R. Browning
November 19: Blackboxing unknown unknowns through vulnerability analysis by Joseph Guillaume
December 3: Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns? by Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

Participatory research and power

By Diana Rose

Diana Rose
Diana Rose (biography)

Can even the most well-designed participatory research really level the power relations between researchers and the relevant community? The key issues are who sets the research agenda, who drives the research process and governs it, and who interprets information. In all these aspects of research, the aim is for the community to no longer be ‘subjects’ but equal partners.

In this blog post, I outline challenges to achieving this mission, so that we can be realistic about what’s involved in trying to achieve equal partnerships. The difficulties identified are not proposed as tensions to be ‘solved’ but as dilemmas that can be articulated so as better to facilitate good practice, not reach an unattainable perfect state.

In my research on mental health services, my team and I are mental health service users ourselves and are therefore more intrinsically part of the community being researched. My research team and I disclose our mental health experience with the objective of making the research a non-hierarchical and non-medical space. Meetings are held in community venues, not hospital premises. This is in contrast to most participatory research projects where researchers are external to the community they work with and have a single ‘professional’ identity, even though this may be constantly put in question.

Nevertheless our research has identified major challenges. I describe these using five questions that researchers can ask themselves in their attempts to establish good practices.

Are there differences in compensation for being involved in the research?

In our research, participants are paid for their contributions. However, in the UK, where our research is conducted, welfare benefit regulations limit the amounts that can be paid. Thus, researchers and researched are not equal in this respect. This discrepancy is common in participatory research.

Is full participation of all community members possible?

In our research, we do not have unfettered access to potential participants. To find people who would like to participate, our gatekeepers are the mental health professionals who have primary responsibility for them. These are mainly nurses and social workers and they are selective in whom they put forward. They routinely filter out potential participants who they deem to ‘lack capacity’ (although no formal assessment occurs) or too chaotic. Often these are the very people most affected by the research topic. They may also, for reasons of beneficence, exclude people with ambiguous or no residence rights. In any participatory investigations, researchers are unlikely to engage all sections of a community equally because there will always be gatekeepers, often elders in low resource settings

Are there systemic injustices?

In mental health services in both the UK and USA, people from black and ethnic minority communities are more likely to be detained and compelled, more likely to receive a diagnosis of psychosis, more likely to enter mental health services via the police and less likely to receive psychological services. Including black and ethnic minority community members in research is vital but at the same time they cannot be expected to carry the weight of the history that has led to the injustices described. In addition, the anglophone scientific paradigm of generating knowledge through empirical research may not be adequate to capturing the systemic injustices at stake. One participant put this succinctly: “Stop treating us as guinea pigs, as the problem. Research yourselves and the systems you create and inhabit”. A base context of systemic injustices is common in participatory research.

Do participants perceive power relations as equal?

While researchers can control how we present ourselves, we cannot control how we are perceived. At the end of one focus group in our research, a participant said “oh, I forgot you are not psychiatrists”. For this participant at least, something about the very fact that we ran the groups made them like any other research encounter, and what these participants are used to is research run by clinicians. Such perceptions are even more likely when researchers are external to the communities they work with.

Is there a potential conflict between reciprocity and not contaminating the research?

We often emphasize a principle of reciprocity. But at the end of one focus group, a participant asked me if my experience had been the same as that described during the group. I had not anticipated this question and did not give an adequate answer. This was a lesson for future research. Participatory research such as ours requires a balance between disclosure and not contaminating research, an issue which should be thought through beforehand. This may also be a problem for participatory research more generally.

As these examples aim to demonstrate, the whole issue of equal partnerships requires much deeper interrogation and a new set of research principles to facilitate good practice and to explicitly describe inequalities that remain. What have your experiences been? Are there other key questions that should be asked to establish good practices?

To find out more:
Rose, D. (2018). Participatory research: Real or imagined. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 53: 765–771. (Online) (DOI):

Biography: Diana Rose PhD is Co-director of the Service User Research Enterprise and Professor of User-Led Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London in the United Kingdom. She has also been treated by mental health services all her adult life and uses that experience to conduct as best she can research led by consumers, or in English terminology, survivors.

Managing innovation dilemmas: Info-gap theory

By Yakov Ben-Haim

Author - Yakov Ben-Haim
Yakov Ben-Haim (biography)

To use or not to use a new and promising but unfamiliar and hence uncertain innovation? That is the dilemma facing policy makers, engineers, social planners, entrepreneurs, physicians, parents, teachers, and just about everybody in their daily lives. There are new drugs, new energy sources, new foods, new manufacturing technologies, new toys, new pedagogical methods, new weapon systems, new home appliances and many other discoveries and inventions.

Furthermore, the innovation dilemma occurs even when a new technology is not actually involved. The dilemma arises from new attitudes, like individual responsibility for the global environment, or new social conceptions, like global allegiance and self-identity transcending all nation-states. Even the enthusiastic belief in innovation itself as the source of all that is good and worthy entails a dilemma of innovation. Continue reading

10 tips for next generation interdisciplinary research

By Rachel Kelly

Author - Rachel Kelly
Rachel Kelly (biography)

Can we develop a shared understanding on how to engage in an interdisciplinary setting that will be useful in addressing current and future grand challenges?

Advice provided by interdisciplinary experts from 25 countries, across all continents, and with over 240 years cumulative experience (Kelly, et al., 2019) is combined here into succinct guidance that aims to empower researchers wishing to engage in interdisciplinary endeavors. The ten tips are also summarized in the figure below (focused on socio-ecological researchers). Continue reading

What do you know? And how is it relevant to unknown unknowns?

By Matthew Welsh

Author - Matthew Welsh
Matthew Welsh (biography)

How can we distinguish between knowledge and ignorance and our meta-knowledge of these – that is, whether we are aware that we know or don’t know any particular thing? The common answer is the 2×2 trope of: known knowns; unknown knowns; known unknowns; and unknown unknowns.

For those interested in helping people navigate a complex world, unknown unknowns are perhaps the trickiest of these to explain – partly because the moment you think of an example, the previously “unknown unknown” morphs into a “known unknown”.

My interest here is to demonstrate that this 2×2 division of knowledge and ignorance is far less crisp than we often assume.

This is because knowledge is not something that exists in the world but rather in individual minds. That is, whether something is ‘known’ depends not on whether someone, somewhere, knows it; but on whether this person, here-and-now does. Continue reading

Using a cartoon video to achieve research impact

By Darren Gray, Yuesheng Li and Don McManus

Darren Gray
Darren Gray (biography)

In the right circumstances, a cartoon video can be an effective way to communicate research information. But what’s involved in developing a cartoon video?

This blog post is based on our experience as a Chinese-Australian partnership in developing an educational cartoon video (The Magic Glasses, link at end of post) which aimed to prevent soil-transmitted helminths (parasitic worm) infections in Chinese schoolchildren. We believe that the principles we applied are more broadly applicable and share them here. Continue reading