Stories We Tell: How Imagination Reveals Reality

An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy

Art is often thought of as something separate. We think of categories like business, science, technology, medicine, and even education, and we can identify overlaps. It’s not difficult to draw common threads. But if we pair, for example, art with science, we have a tendency to think of them as different things. We may even think of them as the opposite, as though one fights against the other. Many famous scientists, including Neil Degrasse Tyson, could not disagree with that more. Creativity plays a critical role in science from innovation to social research. The stories we tell, even ones we make up, reveal our reality.

Art and Science: More alike than different

Art and science are connected. In fact, Arts-Based Research is a methodology that has grown in acceptance by the scholarly community since the 1970s. Dr. Patricia Leavy is a world-famous arts-based researcher, who has just released her newest novel, “Twinkle”.

Dr. Leavy has published over thirty books, earning commercial and critical success in both nonfiction and fiction.  A vocal advocate of public scholarship, Patricia has published hundreds of blogs and op-eds, is frequently called on by the US national news media.

Recently, her novel Film won the 2020 American Fiction Award for Inspirational Fiction, her novel Spark won the 2019 American Fiction Award for Inspirational Fiction and the 2019 Living Now Book Award for Adventure Fiction, and her Handbook of Arts-Based Research won the 2018 USA Best Book Award for best academic book.  In 2016 Mogul, a global women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.”

Dr. Leavy shared some of her time to answer questions about the connections between art and science and to emphasize the importance of the arts in daily life. She also gave us a glimpse into “Twinkle.”

patricia leavy holding her book
Dr. Patricia Leavy with her book “Twinkle”.

Artistic Fuel: How did you discover Arts-Based Research?  

Dr. Leavy: Early in my career I became frustrated with the limitations of traditional ways of doing and sharing research. Peer-reviewed journal articles, for example, are completely inaccessible to the public. Beyond that, they’re actually even poorly read within the academy. In addition to having tiny audiences, I felt that in my own research, sometimes the essence of the stories I sought to tell didn’t come through in traditional academic writing which is often dry and formulaic.

At the time I was researching what a colleague and I termed “emergent research methods” (innovative approaches to research). I stumbled across arts-based research and it immediately resonated. I view arts-based research or ABR as a set of methodological tools that adapt the tenets of the creative arts in research across the disciplines. The arts may be used during any or all phases of the research endeavor—data generation, analysis, representation, or as the entire method of inquiry. The arts are accessible to people both inside and outside of the academy.

The arts are also uniquely well-suited to promote empathy, stimulate self and social reflection, challenge assumptions, crystallize micro-macro links, and contribute to public scholarship. While academics often don’t talk about their work as “fun” I actually think that’s important too. Both creating and experiencing art can be fun. People enjoy the arts. 

A|F: You are the world’s most visible advocate for this methodology and have earned countless awards for this effort. Why do you think you have had such success with your advocacy efforts? 

Dr. Leavy: You’re very kind, thank you. The truth is that there are many scholars and artists doing important work that ought to be recognized. Unfortunately, people don’t always receive the recognition they deserve. I think part of what accounts for the attention my work has received is that I came to the topic of arts-based research earlier than many. While I didn’t discover or create ABR by any stretch, when I wrote the first edition of Method Meets Art, there was no other book that described ABR as a methodology. So I was a bit ahead of the curve in a sense.

The same was true when I started publishing novels as research. I’m by no means the first person to do it, but I’m one of the earlier ones to do it and link it expressly to ABR. Telling people to “be ahead of the curve” probably isn’t helpful advice though, since there’s a luck element to that. 

There are a few things I’ve done which have worked well for me that I can suggest for others. First, learn to write accessibly. Sometimes people think this means “dumbing down” but I would say the opposite is true. It’s actually much harder to write about complicated topics in clear ways that virtually anyone could understand. Whether I’m writing a textbook or a blog, I strive to make my writing accessible.

Second, engage public audiences. I’ve been giving quotes to media, doing interviews about my work, and writing blogs and op-eds for nearly twenty years. I never cared if it was The New York Times calling or a small regional paper no one ever heard of—whatever I could do to get the message out. I think that’s important. 

Third, take risks. I think it’s easy to play it safe in any area of life, and academia is no exception. People can get into a groove becoming an “expert” in one specific area and presenting their work over and over again in the same formats. Get creative. I’m sure there were many people who thought I was totally out there when I started writing novels, but that’s one of the things that’s brought me the greatest rewards professionally and personally. Try new things. 

Finally, any success that comes your way, use it to shine a spotlight on others. The Social Fictions book series I edit is one of the things, if not the thing, I am most proud of. That idea however was born out of the desire to create something bigger than my own work—to not just find a place to publish my debut novel but to create a larger space for others. I’ve continued to try to do that in whatever ways I can. For example, I’ve created and edit ten book series, I cofounded the open-access journal Art/Research International, I mentor students and early career researchers including through free Facebook Live events, and I’m active on social media where I share others’ work as well as my own. I’ve created these platforms for others simply to try to be a good citizen, but these efforts have all come back to me in innumerable ways.  

A|F: Arts-Based Research is considered a legitimate form of research, but often portrayed as more “fringe”. To some extent, this is analogous to how art is viewed in our society as a whole. The idea of “nice to have” versus a “must have” continues to persist despite evidence of the importance of art and creativity in business and health (among others) –why do you think that is? 

Dr. Leavy: You’re spot on and it’s endlessly frustrating, given, as you’ve said, we know how beneficial the arts are in the ways you’ve mentioned as well as in education and personal well-being.

About three years ago I wrote “A Love Letter to the Arts” (which is posted at Most of the letter describes my own love of art from childhood through to adulthood, and the various ways the arts have enriched my life and work. Later in the letter I wrote the following: “I’ve been told that many people don’t love you the way I do. Perhaps. However, when I see the person in the car next to me bopping their head along to the radio, or when I hear people munching on popcorn through their laughter at the movies, or when I wade through the ceaseless crowd surrounding Van Gogh’s The Starry Night at the MoMA, I’m not so sure. Perhaps the issue isn’t love, but appreciation. It’s easy to take things for granted.” 

Part of our job is to sensitize people to the role the arts already play in their lives, so hopefully they’ll better value them.

Patricia Leavy

I really think that’s part of the issue. The arts are often simply taken for granted. As soon as the global pandemic hit, there were reports about huge surges in Netflix use and the like. Art has been integral in helping people around the world get through these challenging times. The truth is, the arts are a part of daily life for most people, in ways they may not consciously think about. Part of our job is to sensitize people to the role the arts already play in their lives, so hopefully they’ll better value them.  

A|F: I think that most people think of fiction writing and research as two separate processes. You speak about your research in a seamless way. How did you come to that orientation early in your career, or did it come with time or practice?   

Dr. Leavy: Yes, for me, it is seamless. Both social research and fiction are meant to illuminate the human experience, so fundamentally, they share similar goals. Researchers attempt to chronicle or document social reality, so we can better understand our lives in context. Novelists also attempt to chronicle or document social reality, but they also help us to reimagine the world and our place in it. So in some respects, fiction writers push it a bit, but we’re all a part of the same larger picture.

Researchers and novelists share many skill sets, too. For example, interpretation, thinking thematically, using metaphor and symbolism, and the use of language with great specificity. Sometimes we think of research as “true” and fiction as “untrue,” but I strongly disagree. Fact and fiction are far more complex. All fiction is in some ways grounded in reality—it borrows from the social world and our experience of it, both as writers and readers. It makes us feel deeply, can inspire empathy in the real world, as well as self and social reflection. 

I started writing my research as fiction over ten years ago. For me, it’s been a process to get to a point where the act of writing is at once my method on inquiry and the final representation. I think this just comes from practice, engaging in a daily writing discipline, and the confidence we develop over time as we develop our craft. I have to say, for me, there’s nothing more engaging, immersive, or challenging than writing a novel. Because I’m a sociologist, and that’s a part of my worldview, that perspective is always present in my writing, the same way it’s present when I watch the news or go to the movies. It’s simply a part of the way I see the world and so that comes through my pen, regardless of the genre I’m working in.  

A|F: Could you speak about the relationship between the work of Arts-Based Researchers and Artists?  It seems there might be important ways they can support one another.  

Dr. Leavy: I agree whole heartedly that cross-pollination and support across disciplines could be a great benefit to all involved. Sometimes people in different fields can become a bit territorial about the same tools being used across areas, but the arts can help us all. We need more art, created in different ways and for different purposes, not less. 

Perhaps what distinguishes ABR from art made for purely artistic purposes is the intent with which it’s made. An arts-based researcher may approach an artwork with a specific agenda in terms of content or message, whereas an artist might be more open to the process of discovery. But really it’s a slippery slope. When I’m writing a novel, there may be specific messages I want to deliver, yet I also approach it as an art form so I pay attention to characterization, narrative, metaphor, symbolism, and so on. It has to work as a piece of art.  

A|F: You engage in and support public scholarship. This seems to be another form of advocacy on your part. How did you come to decide to do your scholarly work in this way and how would you advise others who might consider a similar path? 

Dr. Leavy: I believe that research should benefit the many, not the few. Academic research in the form of peer-reviewed journal articles and conference presentations is totally inaccessible to the public, those very stakeholders who have vested interests in our topics.

In order to reach wider and more diverse audience I also present my work in other more popular formats such as blogs, op-eds, podcasts, vlogs, radio, social media posts, and fiction. These means of expression are available to us all. For instance, anyone can write a blog. My advice to researchers interested in contributing to public scholarship is to take your work, for example a journal article, and rewrite it as a blog—the same work then has two outcomes and will reach different audiences.

Spend some time practicing. Learn to write without jargon. It’s a skill that takes some effort, but anyone can do it. For researchers seriously interested in learning how to do and present research that’s accessible, I’ve edited The Oxford Handbook of Methods for Public Scholarship. The interdisciplinary contributors did a wonderful job covering a wide array of methods and approaches.  

A|F: You are the creator and editor of the Social Fictions Series with Brill/Sense Publishing, tell us about your work with that series. 

Dr. Leavy: When I wrote my debut novel, Low-Fat Love, I wanted to publish it as both a novel and as research. However, the publishing world hasn’t historically worked that way. There are two kinds of publishing: academic and trade. Trade publishes commercial work, including fiction. Academic publishes traditional academic work, like monographs and textbooks. 

So I had to get creative to find a way to merge these two polarized worlds. I came up with the idea for the Social Fictions series. I partnered with a small academic press, Sense Publishers, which was later bought and became the Brill/Sense imprint. In short, we publish books by scholars that are written entirely in literary forms—novels, plays, short story and poetry collections. Each book includes brief back or front matter, linking the creative work to scholarly audiences (for example, with an academic preface and/or further engagement for class use). 

In the beginning, people thought the idea was completely out there. The first publisher I pitched turned me down. The publisher I eventually partnered with actually turned me down at first too, but I was persistent and presented them with a revised proposal. My initial series editor contract was only for two books—Low-Fat Love and another book of my choosing. The series quickly became far more successful than anyone imagined. This coming summer will be our 10-year anniversary. To date we’ve published forty titles, with many more in the pipeline, and several of our titles have become bestsellers and earned numerous awards and award nominations. 

We’re always looking for new ways to innovate. For instance, we have a forthcoming “wordless” book—all images that create a narrative. I’m enormously proud of this series. We’re really doing something no one else is doing. In recent years, other publishers have approached me about doing something similar, publishers that a decade ago thought the idea was far-fetched. It just goes to show you how important it is to see your vision through, even if others don’t yet understand it.

Innovation and creativity are often met with resistance, so I always remind people how important it is to believe in your ideas regardless and do the work. In the end, the work is all that matters. 

A|F: Congratulations on the release of your newest novel Twinkle! Please tell us what excites you about your newest book. 

Dr. Leavy: Thank you so much! This novel is quite special to me. In some ways, it’s meant to be the hug we all need right now. It’s a love story that explores the nature of doubt in our lives and relationships. It’s a deeply human experience for people to think, on some level, that they aren’t enough. This belief causes so much pain and an inability to truly give ourselves to others and accept love in return. 

The characters in this novel use love to confront this innately human fear and help one another learn to more fully love themselves and those around them. Tonally, there’s a balance of drama and humor with laugh-out-loud, light-hearted moments, those that are painful or tearful, and those that are tender. In the end, it’s a feel-good read with a takeaway about letting go of doubt and allowing love to help us heal from past trauma. These characters have embraced me in the warmest of hugs as I’ve laughed and cried with them. I hope they do the same for others. 

Check out Twinkle and the Brill Social Fiction series.

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