Back to Creative Writing School by Bridget Whelan reminds me a little bit of a book I used to own (and might still have, buried somewhere in my childhood closet in my parents’ house) called Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg. Room to Write is a book of writing exercises that was given to me as a gift when I was a teenager. At one point, I was determined to complete every exercise in the book.
It turns out I am terrible at writing exercises. Despite that, I still bought another book a few years ago called 642 Things to Write About. It is currently collecting dust on a shelf in my office. I think I did three of the exercises. Same with Start Where You Are.
So you might think that my past record with writing exercises might color my thoughts on Back to Creative Writing School. I thought it might, too, but luckily my purpose in reading it wasn’t to complete any of the exercises. It was to learn whether the author might have anything to say about the role of research in the writing process.
Back to Creative Writing School was number 9 on the list of the top 10 most popular writing books on Goodreads (as of June 2018). Below are my thoughts, some related to my research, some not.
The value of writing exercises
The format of this book is a little different than most of the other ones on the list in the sense that it’s organized around writing exercises with some advice to go with each exercise. There’s the usual stuff about writing dialogue and creating a sense of place. There’s also some more unexpected stuff that tries to teach you how to write comedy or horror.
I happened to read this book not long after I went to a writing workshop on my campus by a well-known local author who’s written some bestselling memoirs. In that workshop, the author was pretty adamant about writing exercises being a waste of time. It seems like in her mind, they’re a form of procrastination rather than practice.
Like I said, I am terrible at writing exercises. There’s something about the lack of context that stymies me.
Here’s the thing, though. When it comes to fiction writing, I feel pretty okay about my ability to write dialogue but I’m terrible at description. Looking through some of the exercises in this book and some of the other books that I read as part of this project, I can see how they could be valuable as a way to shift my thinking. For example, there’s an exercise in here where you describe the same room two different ways. In the first description, it’s a place you feel safe. In the second, it’s a place you feel trapped. That’s pretty interesting.
But why are so many writing exercises about what you don’t say?
What this book has in common with a lot of other books is its insistence on not coming out and saying what you mean. Like, if a character is sad because her husband died, you’re not actually supposed to say this but instead find other means of conveying the emotion and the circumstances. Apparently to do otherwise is “telling” rather than “showing.” So there are at least a few exercises here where you’re supposed to convey an emotion or atmosphere without ever using the word for that emotion or atmosphere.
Again, I think these exercises are good practice. It’s a good way to challenge yourself as a writer.
So it’s hard to explain why advice like this frustrates me, but it does, especially now that I’ve seen it in so many books. I think it’s because this is another example of how literary fiction, where this emphasis on showing over telling is such a Big Deal, is so often held up as the gold standard of writing. You can tell that this is the case because in most writing advice books (though not this one), romance and thrillers and other types of writing you might find in a mass market paperback are ridiculed as examples of what not to do when it comes to this aspect of writing, including a lot of telling rather than showing. And while it’s true that literary fiction typically wins all the biggest and most famous awards, not everyone who writes fiction wants to write literary fiction.
Research interferes with the writing process
Research comes up pretty early on in this book, which I was pleased about. But what’s interesting about Whelan’s advice about research is basically that she warns against it (seriously, there is a small section with the heading “Research Warning”). Rather, she warns against doing too much of it. The implication is that research is not part of the writing process. Or, at least, it’s not a valid part of the time you should be devoting to writing. This is different from what Anne Lamott has to say in Bird by Bird, which is that research is part of the work—it’s not, as she puts it, “shirking.”
The debate about whether research is part of “writing time” or not is one that I’ve had with my writing group a lot. My writing group being a group of colleagues who get together once a month to talk about the scholarly work we’re doing rather than a fiction writing group. Now, in scholarly writing, you would think research would be considered part of writing time since in most fields you have to include some sort of literature review as part of the articles you write. Yeah, not so much. It turns out there are a lot of academic writers out there who think that writing time is strictly for writing and that reviewing the literature should be reserved for another time. (To which other academic writers, like me, might respond: But when?!?)
So I’m not surprised to see the same debate going on in these writing advice books, especially since I’ve come to suspect that if you want to learn anything substantial about the role of research in fiction writing, you have to either talk directly to writers or find a book specifically focused on that subject rather than rely on books about fiction writing. To me, this suggests that the research process is viewed as something separate from the writing process.