Why and how I started writing social science based novels

In this post, J Sumerau reflects on the processes and experiences that led zir to begin writing sociological based novels alongside their academic research and blogging endeavors (more information about the novel will be posted as it nears release).

The other day I posted about a dream come true on my Facebook page.  As far back as I can remember, I always dreamed of writing and publishing a novel, and earlier this week I signed the contract for my first novel to be published as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy.  Built upon the combination of my own experiences as a bisexual, genderqueer person and my research into the intersection of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the historical and interpersonal lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities, the novel is a bisexual and transgender coming of age story set in the southeastern United States in the 1990’s.  Since my hope is that the work will aid ongoing efforts to educate people about bi and trans experiences and we often use this blog as a way to reflect on academic, teaching, and activist experiences with writing, publishing, and teaching about personal and emotional elements of scholarship, I thought I would use this post to reflect on the experiences that led to the creation of the novel from ongoing academic and creative efforts to write where it hurts.

Like much of my work, the novel began accidentally in an inductive fashion.  I was driving through Georgia on my way back home one day when I found myself playing the same song over and over again on repeat in my car.  Every time the song played, I basically screamed – rather than singing – along to the words and felt a bit overwhelmed in the process.  These actions surprised me both because I had listened to the song many times – it was already one of my favorites – and I didn’t understand why I was having such an emotional reaction to the song at the time.  Seeking to figure it out, I stopped at a truck stop in a rural area, and spent about an hour pacing the mostly empty parking lot thinking about the song, what I was feeling, and my life in general.

When I was younger, I used to write letters to my past and future selves in some of the journals I kept as an exercise in self reflection.  Something about imagining a future and comparing the current me at a given time to the past versions of me that once existed was comforting, and often helped me process emotions, challenges, and writing ideas in productive ways.  As I paced the parking lot, I realized two things.  First, I had not written one of those letters to myself in a long time.  Second, the song I kept playing on repeat and screaming along to felt like one of those letters.  Somehow, when I sung / screamed along to the song I felt like I was singing to an earlier version of myself, and in so doing, I felt very emotional and kept thinking about the things that change and the things that stay the same over time.  I got back in the car, turned the song back on again, and restarted my drive home.

As I drove that day, I kept returning to the ways things change and the ways they stay the same over time.  It seemed like a powerful theme in my own life at the time, and I had been feeling caught between these two poles all year at that point.  On the one hand, I had somehow established a life partnership, close friendships, and a professional career that all were far more positive, satisfying, and fulfilling than I’d ever allowed myself to expect to obtain.  I felt more excited about my own life than I ever had, and I actually looked forward to (still do) time with my life partner, a close network of supportive friends and colleagues, my research and other writing, and my students.  I didn’t know what to make of this because I kept waiting on something to go wrong like it always had in the past.  These aspects of my life were so different from previous experience that I was constantly trying to make sense of my newfound luck.

On the other hand, however, many other things remained the same.  I still heard at least a handful of students every semester repeat the same questions I asked about a decade ago in college (for example, “why don’t scientists seem to know about, write about, or ever mention bi and trans people” or “how can I take these surveys seriously if they only include cis and mono people”).  I still got randomly accosted in bathrooms – the latest time being earlier in the drive through Georgia – because my embodiment in a given moment terrified some cis person.  I had just had my latest dust up with a colleague who was unfamiliar with bi and trans (and to an extent lesbian and gay) histories, terminology, experience, etc because cis, mono and hetero people are not required to learn about us in this world they control.  I had just met with another college student – this one from the area where I was raised who found me through my online blogging – who felt isolated and terrified living in a small southern town.  I still spent everyday in scientific and broader public settings where cis and mono normativities operate as dominant religions most Americans seek to enforce on everyone else, and met people – even many scientists and other well educated folks – who were unfamiliar with and / or actively denied the existence of bi, trans, poly, and some other types of people in our world.  These aspects of my life were so similar to decades past that I wondered if they would ever change.

With these things in mind, I finished my trip back home without ever changing the song playing from the speakers.  I’ve often come up with some of my best ideas – as a writer, a teacher, an activist, a researcher and a person – as a result of this or that song leading me to consider certain feelings, thoughts, or memories.  Aware of this pattern, I began randomly listening to the song and journaling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose over the next few weeks.  At the same time, I began digging through currently in use and old data sets I have of interviews, field notes and historical documents as well as old journal entries, memories, informal interviews I do with people for fun and to learn more about things for my own interests, and notes I kept about research and creative projects that never came to fruition.  In so doing, I found myself looking over notes I had for two novels I tried and failed to write while I was in college.  Back then, I never planned on being a college professor, a researcher, or a teacher, but rather, I had no clue what I would do for a living while dreaming of someday writing and publishing a novel (a dream I carried with me from my earliest memories).  Not for the first time, I realized that my mind was again leading me back to this original dream, and spent some time thinking about how the current version of me might tell the stories I began years ago.

I also spent some time with my life partner talking about all these issues over the next couple weeks.  My life partner pointed out that (a) I’d already accomplished the writing goal I set for myself after graduate school (i.e., I wanted 30 academic publications by the time I retired and I was past that arbitrary number now) in my four years post PhD, and (b) the security I managed to acquire with them and other aspects of my life gave me more flexibility about what I did with my time.  With these things in mind, they suggested maybe it was time to chase the original dream, and that even if I – as I hypothesized I would – failed it wouldn’t matter because I already had a career I loved and did well at so this could just be a hobby on the side.  Finally, my life partner asked me what novels about bi, trans, and poly experience might have meant to me as a kid, and what it might be like to have that resource for kids now, for colleagues still trying to make sense of these aspects of society, and for use in classrooms.  We kept talking about these things for a few weeks, and I kept going over all my notes, data sources, collections of published research, and story ideas.  In the end, I decided to give it a try almost entirely because they believed I could do it, and they convinced me that such stories might be at least half as useful to others now as they would have been for younger versions of me.

Fairly certain it would become yet another unfinished attempt (sometimes its nice to be wrong I guess), I began digging through all the research, narratives, interviews, and other materials I had as well as many of my own experiences over the years the same way I do with my non-fiction, research and advocacy writing projects.  As if I was outlining another analysis for a journal article, I looked for common experiences, feelings, and events throughout the sources to develop a cohesive plot for the novel.  Once I had this outline in hand, I began writing a bisexual and transgender coming of age story that – to my surprise – will be published as my first sociological novel as part of the Social Fictions Series in the near future.  I will post more in the coming times as the release nears, and in the end, my hope is that the novel may be useful both for bi and trans people looking for examples of the complexity and multiple forms of our lives in the world today, and for educators seeking to make sense of and teach about the rest of the world that exists beyond mono and cis normative assumptions.  While I’m still surprised I actually finished (much less found a way to publish) a novel after all the years of thinking “someday I’ll do that,” I look forward to what may come from incorporating my artistic interests into my existing scientific writing endeavors, and hope the work will be useful in a world where constantly explaining bi and trans existence (much less experience) remains a daily requirement for so many people who don’t fit the binary expectations of the broader society.

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