Saturday, December 15, 2012


An opening can...

let in the light
    get your foot in the door    
    herald the beginning of an amazing event
    allow for things to be fixed
    bring new learning
    create a new path
    surprise you
    require strength
    reveal a beautiful gift


...and as I learned today, provide an outline for your comprehensive exams!

While having lunch with a friend I expressed my current struggle with writing my responses to my comprehensive exam questions. All three questions are based on my dissertation by focusing on my theoretical framework, review of relevant literature, and making an argument for the method I've chosen. I've been married to my dissertation idea for about two years. I've written several papers, analytic memos, and musings that are sure to find their way into my responses. But  I've been struggling with how they may all fit together and what is worth keeping and what needs to be weeded out.

My friend asked me a simple question: "Do you have an outline?" I immediately responded, "Of course not!" I think this surprised her, and by her surprise, I began to wonder why I didn't have an outline. I've never started writing with an outline and I wasn't sure why. Yet, my writing usually ends up with a clear organizational path with connecting transitions, which at least to me, seems logical :). This caused me to reflect on this part of my writing process. How did I move from globs or morsels of thought to a whole piece?

I began to think about times I've been required to turn in an outline before a draft of a paper and I realized I always had to write the opening to my paper before I could write the outline to turn in. I then realized why I was struggling with my responses to my comprehensive exam questions. I was treating each of them separately when they are intrinsically tied together. I needed to approach all three as a single whole and in order to do that, I had to write an opening!

I could barely wait to wake up this morning to get a start! The hardest part is always the first few sentences. Much has been written about how authors craft gripping openings. Just look at a few of my favorites from a list of best opening lines from novels as compiled by the editors of American Book Review:
  • "Call me Ishamael" ~ Herman Melville in Moby Dick
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" ~ Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice
  • "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair" ~ Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities
By no means do I expect the opening to my academic paper to rival the words of Melville, Dickens, or Austen. However, I do feel a bit of the same pressure those authors might have felt. I want my opening to create some level of interest in my readers to read on. Fortunately, today it came quickly :) With my first two sentences on the computer screen, I began to work like a swallow--zig-zagging back and forth in unpredictable patterns between previous written texts, new connecting ideas, and new searches on the library database for articles. Four hours later, I've written 955 words from which I now have an outline for the entire paper, which encompasses all three exam questions!

Voila! I now have a foot in the door, a beautiful gift, a bit of light, a beginning to this amazing event of a dissertation, and a clear path. Things have been fixed (for now) and I feel nourished and excited about the new learning that lay before me. I know it will take great strength along the way over the next year, but I'm excited about the surprises I might find along the way. 

Thank goodness for openings!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

From Cuttlefish to Research: A Tribute to Dr. Carol Bryant

This was originally published on a tribute blog for one of my professors who recently retired, Dr. Carol Bryant. Not only has she opened up the world of qualitative research for me but she has become a treasured friend so I wanted share my tribute here also.

"Thought flows in terms of stories -- stories about events, stories about people, and stories about intentions and achievements. The best teachers are the best storytellers. We learn in the form of stories." -- Frank Smith

The Curious Cuttlefish
by Melanie Reaves

Bobbing gently with the rhythm of the swaying water, the embryonic cuttlefish viewed her surroundings. It was filled with colorful coral and swishing seaweed that would soon be her home. She wondered what it would be like to be out there--out there where she could weave amongst the architecture of the sea. The colors are what intrigued her most. She couldn't choose one as her favorite if she were asked. In fact, the middle of the day was her favorite time as the beaming sunlight from above created quick flashes of color on everything around her. She waited rather impatiently each night for the dawning of color as she peered through her egg.

Finally she just couldn't stay in her egg any longer. She gently pushed on the inner wall of her translucent egg. To her surprise, a hole formed and with one quick swoosh she was home--home in her colorful world. She found the sea world around her more vibrant than she imagined while cocooned in her egg. With the ease of undulating chiffon, she propelled through the colors. Yet she found she was defenseless against a predator. She would dart quickly under a rock or within coral and they would swim right by. Although her new home was filled with many frightening things she felt welcomed and warm. Little did she know that part of that warm feeling came directly from her own skin and would serve as her defense!

One day, while swimming past a bright red coral the small cuttlefish noticed a flood of warmth rush through her body. As she peered down at her tentacles she realized that she was no longer the pale white color of her birth. Instead she was flashing with a myriad of colors ranging from scarlet with black spots to a fiery orange. It was then that she realized how she mirrored her world--flashing all kinds of colors, patterns, and even textures. Not only did she live in a colorful world, she was part of bringing color to that world!

For the remainder of her days she relished in the joys of swimming amongst the flowing colors of the sea. She flashed her colors to signal her presence and reflect her world. Her colors were unlike any other creature in the sea and although she knew her difference, she felt at home amongst the architecture of the sea.

From Story to Tribute

It is difficult to find the words to describe Carol's influence on my life as a fledgling, curious researcher. Yet I knew Carol's love for story and that's why I chose to write The Curious Cuttlefish. Like the small cuttlefish in my story, I entered the world of research with little understanding of how I would fit in. I marveled at others' words as they described what they found in the world of early literacy and wondered how I could ever contribute. Fortunately, when I emerged into this world I found Carol who opened the architecture of the research sea before me. She showed me the amazing colors of qualitative research and I knew I had found my home. I knew that in this sea I could find my voice and offer some colors and patterns that could be unique but contributive. Thank you, Carol for your guidance and friendship. Your literal presence will be greatly missed but you will continue to present in my heart and mind as I propel my way forward in this new world!

To close, I share some excerpts* from an amazing poem, Cuttlefish Bones by Eugenio Montale.
It’s time to leave the stunted cane
that seems to be falling asleep
and observe the forms of life
as it is breaking up.

We move in a quivering haze
of mother-of-pearl,
in a glare that dazzles our eyes
and weakens us a little.

Still, you feel, in the play of dry waves
that numbs us in this moment of unease,
let’s not yet toss our vagrant lives
into a depthless abyss...

Dark things tend to what is bright,
bodies break up in a flood of colors,
colors in music. So to vanish is
the destiny of destinies.

Bring me the plant that shows the way
to where bright transparencies
arise, and life as essence turns to haze;
bring me the sunflower crazed with light...

What you knew of me
was only a  coat of paint,
the tunic that covers over
our human fate.

And maybe beyond the canvas
the blue was still.
Only a seal kept out
the limpid sky.

Or else there was the fiery
changing of my life,
the unveiling of a burning
sod I will never see.
So this skin remained
my actual substance:
the fire that wasn’t quenched
for me was called ignorance.

If you see a shadow
it’s no shadow—it’s me.
If only I could strip it off
and offer it to you.

*The entire poem can be found at:
Montale, E. (1985). Cuttlefish bones. Ploughshares, (11)4, 43-47.

By the way, if you've never learned about the cuttlefish, watch Nova's Kings of Camouflage!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Writing Without Writing

This morning I woke up from a dream in which I was framing one of my papers for a class based on the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. I haven’t read Borges for about 15 years, yet for some reason his musings of labyrinths and spiraling towers of a library swept into my dream world and somehow collided with my thoughts on qualitative inquiry. This actually happens to me quite a bit but I’ve never taken the time to reflect on the importance of this part of my writing process.

One thing I have found when teaching writing is that everyone’s process is individual. But for some reason, whenever I pick up a book on writing the author outlines specific steps that are necessary for writing production. Ironically, these steps are very different depending on the book I pick up. Some advocate for topic selection, outlining, paragraph development, revising, and editing. For these writers the process is very linear. For some reason, I’ve never been able to work in this trajectory. Creating an outline before I’ve put any words on the page is like being given a mystery bag of ingredients and being told to make lasagna. There are all these bits and pieces with no idea of how they will connect or meld together.

Other authors suggest a consistent time of simply writing. Often this is referred to as “free writing” in which you keep writing for a set period of time. It doesn’t matter what subject I write about as long as I keep writing. From these “ramblings,” gems of topics emerge and begin to take shape that I can later nurture into more concrete musings or essays. I’ve enjoyed these unstructured sessions yet seem to lack the discipline to make them happen on a consistent basis. In a recent attempt to utilize this approach more consistently I joined a web site called It seemed like a great tool in that I write at least 750 words a day. These writings are logged and I can see my progress each day. I receive an email each day that I don’t meet my goal as an incentive. It doesn’t work! I wrote for 3 days and have been getting the emails each day since. I don’t know why I don’t unsubscribe...
This brings me to my current reflection on how my dream this morning, and many other mornings, fits into my personal writing process. For some reason, I tend to need a frame or metaphor to work from when writing. This is different than an outline in that it is more conceptual than concrete. It is a set of ideas and ways of thinking about a topic. Sometimes these metaphors are used in an explicit way as the framework for my writing in that I make them visible for my reader. Other times they just lurk in the background implicitly, guiding my ideas and thoughts into words on the paper.

Most importantly, my current reflection on this element of my process has enlightened me to the fact that this part of the process is almost always “off the page.” It happens in my dreams, in the car when I’m driving, when I’m walking, or even in the shower. I’m reminded of research that I have read in recent years about the importance of daydreaming. Scientists have found that the “resting brain” makes important long-distance connections that help us to make “creative connections between ideas” (Whitfield-Gabrieli & Gabrieli, 2010). Even while I’ve been engaged in writing this reflection, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’ve stopped numerous times to stare at the window, wall, or computer screen.

When I consider how this fits specifically into my academic and scholarly writing experience, I do know that I have learned to put words on a page soon after an “off-the-page” experience takes place. I have learned this the hard way when I have had these connective experiences and then lost them by not writing them down. In this way, I guess I’m learning the delicate dance between my on- and off-the-page experiences. I’m learning to find comfort in the idea that I am writing even when I’m not “writing.”


Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Gabrieli, J. (2010, January). Idle minds and what
they may say about intelligence. Scientific American. Retrieved from