I mentioned before that one of the goals of this blog is going to be to reflect on a
project to read 10 popular books on creative writing to learn what, if anything, they might have to say about the role of research in the creative process.
For a project like this, a few questions might come to mind.
There are a lot of different ways to learn about the role of research in creative writing. The most direct way would be to interview actual writers about their research process. Another way would be to talk to creative writing professors about whether and how they teach research as part of the creative journey. Or to make contact with librarians who have worked with creative people as part of their research. So many methods, all of them valuable in different ways.
I decided instead to look at writing advice books, which is much more indirect. I chose this route because of my own experiences. I learned a lot about writing from my high school teachers and my creative writing professors in college. I also learned a lot from talking to other writers in workshops and the writing groups I’ve attended here and there. But I feel like most of what I’ve learned about writing that hasn’t come to me just by doing it has come from writing advice books like On Writing and Bird by Bird . I suspect I am not the only writer for whom this is true.
The thing is, I realized that even though I had read so many books like these, I couldn’t remember if any of them had ever discussed research. I suspected that they did but that I had just missed it because that wasn’t what I’d been looking for at the time. If I went back and reread some of these books with an eye toward learning about research, what would I find?
I’ve built up a small collection of writing advice books over the years. Some of them were gifts. Others are textbooks from old creative writing classes that I held onto. If I’d wanted to, I probably could have made a studies just out of these.
I could have, but it would have been hard to justify that choice in the scholarly article I wanted to get out of this. Which is to say, I don’t think I would have gotten that particular methodology past the peer reviewers.
My first idea was to study the syllabi of creative writing classes like the ones I had taken as an undergraduate and use the lists of assigned readings to create my sample. That method would have told me a lot, albeit indirectly, about how and whether research is taught to undergraduate students in these programs. If needed, I knew there were a couple of studies of the syllabi for information literacy courses in my own field that I could use as models.
As it turns out, the problem with this was that there’s only so much you can find through Google and I didn’t have the contacts necessary to gather the information in other ways. Plus, the contents of syllabi naturally only capture the tastes of a very specific and very academic audience.
So I dug up some lists of recommendations. Eventually, I stumbled on a list of popular creative writing books on Goodreads.
These were the top 10 books on that list as of the time when I started this project:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
- Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
- The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
- Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: by Rennie Browne and Dave King
- Back to Creative Writing School by Bridget Whelan
Looking at that list, I knew had a contender. (Though there were shortcomings I wouldn’t think about until later. Foreshadowing for a future post!)
Why these books?
For those who don’t know, Goodreads is a social site where readers keep track of and sometimes review books that they are reading, have read, or want to read. If you’re a prolific reader, it’s a good way to show off. If you’re a librarian, it’s a good tool for reader’s advisory (reader advisory? readers’ advisory? IDK)
Looking at the list of Goodreads books, what I saw didn’t surprise me. Almost all of the titles were familiar to me, even if I hadn’t read them. These, it seemed, were the kinds of books you would not only read yourself if you were interested in learning about the craft of writing but that you might give as a gift to an aspiring writer. I mean, my explanation for my choice of sources in the actual article will have to be a more scientific than that, but that was the initial feeling that I had.
I also liked that this list potentially reflected the tastes of a more general audience. I imagine that some people who love these books first encountered them in the classroom, as I did with Bird by Bird and a few of the others. But I figured a lot of the books were also accessible enough that anyone could pick them up and read them, whether they were a student in a scholarly setting or just someone who liked Stephen King and wanted to know what he had to say about writing.
Why not these other books?
There were a couple of books that weren’t on this list that I would have liked to include. I hadn’t gotten around to reading Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig yet and was dying for an excuse to do so. I had also picked up Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon and thought it might be a good candidate. Both of these books also had the advantage of being relatively new compared to the ones on the list I’d found so I thought maybe including them could round out the sample a bit. Alas, I needed to keep the amount of work manageable and my choice of sources neutral.
Which is to say, I read Damn Fine Story anyway and it’s definitely in my own personal top 10 writing books and Steal Like an Artist is pretty great too. I just didn’t include them as part of the study.
I began the process of reading these books in June 2018 and finished in January 2019. I’m writing up my findings for a scholarly article I’m hoping to publish as part of my academic work but I also had some thoughts on what I read and what I learned that there won’t be space for in that particular project. So I’m going to use this blog as a space to share some of those thoughts.