It’s significant that popular books on creative writing don’t talk about research

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So after the 10 books project was over, I mentioned that I would be writing up my findings from that project in a scholarly article I was hoping to publish in my field of study, library and information sciences. One article idea actually turned into two, including one that takes a closer look at creative writing pedagogy in addition to how-to books, which I’m hoping to eventually send to a journal in the writing studies field. But I got far enough on the one for the library and information science field that I decided to share it with two mentors who often read my work and give feedback before I submit it to a journal of peer review and (hopefully) publication.

In this case, one of my reviewers felt that the article I’d written was lacking and in particular that I’d been (in her words) screwed by my choice of books to study. She thought maybe looking into more recent books on creative writing might help resolve this issue since I’d named the age of the books under study as one of the limitations but I’d already started reading some newer books and hadn’t found anything different. They rarely, if ever, talked about research and when they did it was only in passing reference.

At first glance, this seems like a big problem for what I’m trying to do. Originally, I set out to try to understand the role that research plays in the creative writing process by reading 10 popular books on writing. I found that almost none of them talk about research, at least in the form I expected to find. So basically I found nothing that helps me meet the stated goal of the research and I can understand why, in my reviewer’s eyes, this seemed like a failure.

Ironically, the reason why this feedback was so important is because I hadn’t realized that this was the case. To my mentor, it looked like I had gone in search of something and found nothing. To me, I thought I’d found something that was actually rather significant and my failure was perhaps at least in part in not communicating the significance of what I found. I think the other failure was communicating why librarians like me should care about the gap I found or what, if anything, they need to do about it.

So I’m going to take a little space here to establish my thinking about these issues. Not because I think my mentor was wrong—like I said, it’s important for me to know that these connections are not clear and I think she was very right to make me aware of this, especially since potential peer reviewers might have the same questions. But because I need to do some thinking out loud about why I think this study is still important even though it might look like I didn’t have much in the way of findings.

Here’s what my thoughts have been so far.

Research is part of the creative writing process. There are very few studies out there to prove that this is the case, but I think it’s safe to say that if you asked any creative writer out there, they would agree that this was so. There may be differences in how the research is done or how much based on what type of creative writing one engages in (fiction writing, creative non-fiction, poetry, etc.) or what genres (mystery, historical fiction, romance, literary fiction, etc.) but generally speaking research does play a role in the creative process for most writers.

Popular books on creative writing do not talk about research in any meaningful way. Even the ones like Writing Fiction that purport to cover the entire writing process from the spark of an idea to revision. Research is barely mentioned in that book or most of the books on creative writing I’ve read at this point, which is now up to somewhere around 15 or 20. The two books I’ve found that do talk about it in a significant way are On Writing and Bird by Bird. Of those two, On Writing treats research like something you have to hold your nose and do in order to satisfy nitpickers who might find errors in your work. Only Bird by Bird treats it as something that enhances creativity rather than interferes with it.

This is a significant gap. How-to books like these play a huge role in our understanding of how the creative writing process works. They are used as texts in creative writing courses like the ones I took as an undergraduate. Aspiring writers outside of these programs use them to learn about craft. They have plenty to say about grammar and mechanics and plot and structure and characters. But they have little or nothing to say about research.

Why is this?

I don’t know. And it’s driving me crazy. Right now I’m spending a lot of time reading about creative writing pedagogy to try to understand why research isn’t part of the conversation around teaching the creative process and I’m starting to get some insight but it is still driving me absolutely mad. Especially because if there is any part of the writing process that is teachable, surely this must be it.

I also had the thought the other day that while research is often talked about as a process, writing is more often talked about as a craft but I haven’t quite figured out yet what that might mean.

Anyway,  I think the findings of this research certainly would have been more useful if I had managed to discover something about the role of research in the creative process in conducting it but the fact that I found nothing (or close to it) doesn’t make it less significant. Because we know research is part of the creative process, but it’s not being discussed in these books and that should drive us to find out why. Why, in a teaching context represented by books like these, do experienced writers not talk to aspiring writers about the role research plays in their work? What gives?

The answer to that question by itself may or may not be of interest to librarians, which is why I’m hoping to also make inroads in the writing studies field even though it’s outside my own professional realm (though not my academic one).

So the second problem I have here besides communicating the significance in general is communicating the significance to librarians.

The library literature tends to be very practical in nature. As scholars, we primarily want to use our research not just to add to the knowledge in our field but also to improve our collections and services so that we can better serve our users and prove our value to outside stakeholders. Almost all library literature has to relate back in some way to how we can use the knowledge we’ve found to do these things.

Figuring out the information habits of creative people is useful to librarians because some of our users are, well, creative people and we want to figure out how to create services and collections that will best support the work that they do. Academic libraries in particular exist to support not just the curriculum but also the research needs of the campus community. Some of those community members might be faculty who are expected to publish creative works to get tenure (or get their contract renewed). Though they are part of the community we support, we often neglect their needs because we tend to focus so much on scholarly and academic research. And probably also because faculty in creative fields don’t view the library as important to their work because the library doesn’t really support their needs. It’s like a snake eating its own tail.

So if I’d found something about the information habits of creative people in these books, that would have been useful for librarians. But I didn’t. Instead, I found a big gap where that information should be. How is this useful?

It’s not. You can’t really use the knowledge that books on creative writing don’t talk about research to improve your services or collections, at least not directly.

But just as librarians have neglected creative populations with their collections and services, they’ve also neglected them in their research. A huge swathe of literature in the LIS field is devoted to understanding the information and research behaviors of various populations and very little of it looks at creative populations. In fact, the need to understand the information habits and behaviors of creative people was identified as an area where future research was needed by Gorichanaz.(1)

What does a study that shows that popular how-to books don’t talk about research help to fill that gap? First, I think it shows that the myth of the writer as a divinely inspired geniuses, identified by Cobbledick(2) as a barrier to doing research into the information habits of creative people, is alive and well and still a pretty significant obstacle. Second, it shows us that for writers, research is often talked about more as a way to cultivate ideas than to fill a gap in knowledge, which means we need to expand our understanding of what research is and why it’s undertaken, beyond the academic and scholarly notions that we’re usually so obsessed with. And finally, it tells us that there may be a previously unidentified opportunity to collaborate with creative faculty on bringing conversations about research into their classrooms, since that information isn’t being covered in some of the more commonly-used texts. Just because their students aren’t completing traditional research papers doesn’t mean that they don’t still need to do research.

So obviously this is all stuff I need to make clearer in the article I’ve written. Even if I do, I’m not sure if the finished product will make it past a set of peer reviewers, who tend to prefer research with “positive” results that prove a hypothesis rather than ones where the research question turns out to have no readily available answer. But I’m hoping I can make the case and use whatever feedback I receive to make the work stronger.

We’ll see what happens. Wish me luck!

*

  1. Tim Gorichanaz, “Information Creation Models of Information Behavior: Grounding Synthesis and Further Research,” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 51, 4 (2019): 998-1006.
  2. Susie Cobbledick, “The Information-Seeking Behavior of Artists: Exploratory Interviews,” The Library Quarterly 66, 4 (1996): 345.

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