Research in fiction writing: What problems is this investigation trying to solve (for writers)?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post trying to figure out exactly what problem my investigation into the role of research in fiction writing is trying to solve for librarians. I decided that even though librarian and information science scholarship tends to favor studies focused on practical application, that I didn’t want the point of my own work to be about “correcting” either the research behavior of creative populations or correcting library systems and services that may not match that behavior. Instead, I argued that in the LIS field we have a giant hole in our understanding of what research is because we tend to ignore any type of research that doesn’t involve the library. This hole has a negative effect on the value of what we do and call into question our ability to refer to ourselves as “research experts.” My study, then, was intended as a first step toward filling that hole and solving that problem.

But LIS audiences aren’t the only ones I’m hoping to reach with this research and so I’ve also had to think about what problem I’m trying to solve for writers and, to some extent, writing teachers by suggesting that we need to do more to understand and teach about research in creative writing contexts.

After spending an entire sabbatical reading about creative writing pedagogy and creative writing as a discipline, I think it’s pretty clear that writers don’t feel a huge need to understand what they do in any sort of systematic way. It seems like there are a few reasons for this. First, creative writers who also work in universities are not rewarded for this type of work. Second, creative writers seem to have a somewhat superstitious “Orpheus and Eurydice” attitude about what they do where they believe that to try to understand the creative process would be to lose it altogether. For creativity to work, it has to remain mysterious and magical (or so they believe).

So for many writers, there is no problem to solve here because there is no need to understand the creative process, assuming it even could be understood. Trying to study creativity is like using a ruler to measure the wind.

But even if you don’t want to understand creativity, you still have to figure out how to teach creative writing.

Right now, it seems like the way creative writing pedagogy works is that there basically isn’t one. The workshop model was established in the 1930s and that’s the way creative writing has been taught ever since. The people who question the effectiveness of this model in their field talk about themselves as a kind of rebellious minority. The same names in these discussions come up over and over again, giving the impression that it’s taking place in a tiny echo chamber that’s largely ignored by most other writing teachers, who are apparently satisfied with the status quo.

Which is a problem for questions about research in creative writing because the existing model is oriented around a product-based approach rather than a process-based one. Meaning creative writing programs don’t actually teach anyone how to write—instead, they teach them how to analyze writing from the point of view of craft. This is true even of workshops, where the object of analysis isn’t the writer’s process but their writing product.

So writers don’t want to understand the creative process. And writing teachers don’t want to teach it. What interest would they have, then, in research like mine? What problem does this research solve from their point of view?

My first idea is that teaching students about creative research helps them better understand research as a contextual activity but I’m guessing that goal reflects the values of LIS scholars like me more than it does the values of writers and writing teachers.

I have another theory which I’m not sure is entirely relevant but might be worth exploring. If you pay any attention at all to book-related news, the role of research in creative writing has come up in the last few years as the work of writers writing about marginalized populations in particular has started to be scrutinized more closely. When an author’s work is called out as “problematic,” they often defend themselves by citing the research that went into their story. The author of American Dirt, for example, talked about interviewing people with firsthand experience of the topics she wanted to write about. The whole controversy around Music, a movie about an autistic character written by Sia, was based at least in part on the fact that the sources she used for her research are ones that are considered controversial by the community about which she was writing. When I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in November, many of the presenters who spoke about diversity also spoke about the importance and limitations of research.

Clearly, research in creative writing is having a moment, even if no one really sees it.

So I think the problem a study like this is trying to solve has to do with helping aspiring writers first to understand what creative research is and how to do it (or the many ways that it can be done). This will then help them be more cognizant of what research can and can’t do for a creative work that you write. It will also better prepare them for the publishing climate that they will ideally be entering, which is one where audiences may place extra scrutiny on their creative choices. Unlike in a workshop situation, there is no “gag rule” in place; they will be expected to respond.

Finally, I think it’s important for aspiring writers to understand the role of research in creative writing because leaving it out of the conversation perpetuates the myth of the artist as a divinely inspired genius. This myth sounds cool and stuff but it helps no one. Back when I was a student, “write what you know” had no appeal to me but I didn’t know how to go about writing what I didn’t know. My classmates were happy to point out the gaps and mistakes that I couldn’t fill using just my imagination but no one helped me figure out how to fix them. Instead, I assumed these weaknesses disqualified me as a “real” writer. I wouldn’t say this is the only reason I gave up writing for so long after I graduated, but it was certainly a factor.

I have no idea how common this experience is among creative writing students, but my guess is that it’s not unique. If creative writing programs measure their success by how many of their graduates end up getting published, it seems to me that the divinely-inspired genius myth can only harm that statistic, given how discouraging it can be to those who may have to rely on a little more than talent and blind ambition to get there.

Anyway. These are just some initial thoughts. I’m not sure I know yet why exactly it’s a problem that we understand and talk so little about the creative research process but I feel like it is—and it’s one that needs to be solved.

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