Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on The Way of the Writer (…and a rant)

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.

First, Johnson’s book doesn’t give much insight into the role of research in the creative process. Which is to say, research doesn’t go entirely unmentioned. Early in the book, he says that he based one of the six “practice” novels he wrote on some research that he did as part of a college course. Later, he names an ability to do research as one of the “writerly virtues” that fiction writers could learn from journalists. But these mentions are exactly that: mentions. Johnson clearly thinks research is an important part of creative writing but otherwise doesn’t say much about it.

What Johnson does have a lot to say about is the teaching of writing. He devotes a lot of space to describing his own fiction workshops, which he calls an immersive boot camp experience in which his students are treated like apprentices. Because creative writing pedagogy as a thing is regarded with some suspicion by the people who practice it, it’s rare to find such a detailed account of the thinking behind someone’s approach to teaching creative writing. For Johnson, it’s all about building a foundation of skills that will eventually enable you to create something meaningful.

As a creative writing student, I would not have done well in Johnson’s course. For one thing, in order to develop the skills that he thought were important, he used a lot of drills and exercises meant to challenge students to think about things like sentence construction and word choice and showing without telling. One exercise he used (adapted from elsewhere) required students to write a sentence that was the length of an entire page. If I’m not mistaken, the sentence also had to be grammatically correct. I’m not big on writing exercises to begin with but I’m pretty sure this one would have killed me.

The other reason I wouldn’t have done well in Johnson’s class is that while he claims several times that his students could write whatever they wanted, he makes it abundantly clear that the only type of fiction that he considers meaningful or worthwhile is literary fiction. In his mind, writing genre fiction (what he calls “literary pork,” borrowing a phrase from another writer) is okay if you’re only doing it to make money and not because you think it’s a valid form of creative expression. Commercial writing cannot be art. True art cannot be commercial.(1)

Ugh. Johnson’s not exactly alone in this way of thinking. From Where You Dream has pretty much the same stance. I suspect that this is going to be a common thread throughout the books I’m reading for this project. I also suspect that it’s going to raise my hackles every time I encounter it.

As an undergraduate, I took a number of fiction workshops that were less rigorous than the ones Johnson taught but in which I was told (like Johnson told his students) that I could write whatever I wanted. If I’d actually done that, I probably would have ended up bringing a bunch of fanfiction(2) to class because when I was eighteen that was what I most enjoyed writing and reading (though it wasn’t the only thing I read or wrote). Seriously, I would have been like the main character in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

And like Rowell’s character in Fangirl, I probably would have been told that fanfiction is not a valid form of creative expression. Or even if it is, it’s probably not appropriate for a college-level workshop. In order to be a “real” writer, I would need to take the training wheels off and write something with a less complicated relationship to intellectual property laws.

Luckily, I didn’t have to learn this lesson the hard way. I already knew, based on the types of work we read in class, that the things I actually liked to write wouldn’t have been considered acceptable, so instead I wrote the types of stories that I thought my professors wanted to see. The ones that I hoped would get me a good grade.

Those stories were good enough that an advisor who felt I showed promise recommended that I apply for an MFA program. I was pleased with that at the time but looking back I can only think about how meaningless and empty the stories I wrote back then are, based on what little I remember of them. They didn’t represent me as a writer or a thinker. They only represent who I thought I should be based on what my professors had taught me. And because I couldn’t be that thing, because my muse kept pulling me back toward the types of writing that were not valued by my creative writing program, I stopped writing for a long time. And even when I started back up again, I hid what I wrote from others because I was embarrassed that the way I chose to express myself creatively didn’t resemble the type of works that, like Johnson’s, get recognized with prestigious literary awards.

Knowing that drives me crazy.

Now, I’m not saying that being able to share the fanfiction I wrote back then in class would have changed this, especially since doing so would have involved the Herculean task of explaining what transformative works even are and why not all of them are porn to an audience that likely would have been unreceptive to these ideas. But as someone who was never going to be a Great Literary Writer (though I might not have known it at the time), it would have been so much more meaningful to me for my professors and my fellow students to critique a piece of my writing that actually represented me as a writer rather than critiquing how well I was able to mimic the techniques and style of literary writing.

In offering advice to non-literary writers, Johnson rattles off some recommendations related to the business side of things, as if questions about craft somehow don’t apply to their work. The advice is helpful but the implied assumption is more than a little insulting.

So I wasn’t planning on this post turning into a rant about how damaging it can be for creative writing programs and teachers to privilege literary fiction over other types of writing (or talk so much about my own fanfic-writing past…), but there you have it, I guess.

Despite my own misgivings, Johnson must have been doing something right with his approach because his method produced a number of successful writers and teachers. (Not to mention the many awards and other recognitions he’s received for his own work.) I just wish that writers like him would make more space in their thinking and teaching for writers like me.


  1. Which begs the question: if a piece of literary fiction becomes commercially successful, is it still art?
  2. As someone who used to spend a lot of time reading and writing fanfic, I am a weirdo among weirdoes in the sense that, to me, fan fiction has always been two separate words. Writing it as “fanfiction” pains me a bit but I understand from reading the writings of others that this is the correct form. “Fanfic” and just “fic” are also acceptable.

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