Dear AWP: Research is not just for nonfiction

I’ve been spending some time lately taking a closer look at the AWP’s various guidelines for undergraduate and MFA creative writing programs. You’d think that this would have been a step I would have taken much earlier in my research into creative writing pedagogy. And it was, sort of. But now that I know a little bit more about what I’m looking for in these documents, it seemed worth taking the time to take another look.

As mentioned in a previous post, the undergraduate guidelines don’t have much to say about research or even writing. They make it pretty clear that an undergraduate creative writing program is more about learning to appreciate literature from a writer’s perspective than it is about being a writer. Which, as a former undergraduate creative writing major, kind of makes me want to gnash my teeth but whatever.

The MFA guidelines (which are called “Hallmarks,” I guess) are a little more interesting, though. Because they do mention research. Sort of. In a section on the value of cross-genre study, they specifically say: “fiction writers often benefit from learning the research techniques of nonfiction writers.” And later, they mention the value of the campus library…as a place to study works of great literature. Which, as a current librarian, kind of makes me want to gnash my teeth a little but, again. Whatever.

That quote about nonfiction research techniques fascinates me, though. On the one hand, it’s awesome that this document acknowledges the fact that fiction writers do, in fact, sometimes do research as part of their creative work. On the other, it drives me kind of insane that they’re treating research as something that belongs strictly in the realm of nonfiction. That fiction writers (and, I assume, poets) who do research are just borrowing a technique or creative practice from another genre that is somehow the rightful owner of that technique or practice.

Like, what?

I’ve noticed in my time studying this topic that “research” as a term often gets conflated with the type of research that goes on in academic and scholarly contexts. When you say “research,” people automatically think of the research papers they had to write in school. Or maybe of the scientific method. But when you say “information-seeking,” which is the term library and information science scholars use to denote more informal searches for information, people stare at you blankly because no one outside of LIS scholarship calls it that.(1)

The AWP Hallmarks seem to have a view of research that’s not quite this limited. It’s not clear what they mean by “nonfiction research techniques” but given the context, I assume they mean “nonfiction” to mean something more than academic research. Various forms of creative nonfiction, probably. Maybe also journalism.

And I think it’s absolutely true that the research techniques you would learn for these kinds of nonfiction writing are transferable to fiction writing and poetry. More so than academic research techniques would be for sure. For examples, fiction writers seem to place a lot of value on talking directly to people with expertise in the areas they want to learn more about. Learning interview techniques from a course in journalism would be great for that.

But research isn’t just about finding information, whether through print sources or interviews or some other technique. It’s also about using that information. And that’s where confining research to the realm of nonfiction becomes a problem because how you use information is going to be much, much different for a nonfiction project than it is for a work of poetry or fiction.

This is an example I use a lot, but it’s worth repeating to help illustrate this point: in most contexts, nonfiction writers make their research visible. In a book project, citations and extensive notes on research materials help build credibility. A journalist would include quotes and information about an interview subject for similar reasons.

But a fiction writer has to make their research invisible. The second the research becomes visible within the story they’re writing, it spoils the illusion for the reader. In my own experience, I love the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon both for what they are and for a great example of a heavily-researched and well-written piece of fiction. That said, one of the things that sparked my journey to learn more about the role of research in fiction writing was a detail she included in one of her books about how Indigenous people in North America don’t show their teeth when they smile.(2) As a reader, this stood out to me as a piece of research rather than part of the story and momentarily disrupted my experience of the novel.(3)

Admittedly, I know very little about poetry writing. I don’t want to assume too much about what role, if any, research plays in the poet’s creative process but if it does, it stands to reason that their goal might be similar to a fiction writer’s: to make the research invisible.

In most types of nonfiction, the writer acknowledges their sources as a more or less required part of convention. In fiction writing, the writer acknowledges their sources as courtesy, if at all.

This is why students of poetry and fiction writing shouldn’t have to go out of their way to take a course outside of their chosen genre if they want to learn about the role of research in creative writing. Research involves not just finding and evaluating information but also using it. So while the processes for finding information may be transferable across genres, the processes for evaluating and using it are likely to be very different. Fiction writers and poets deserve to learn about those differences.

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  1. And frankly the fact that we have two different words for what’s essentially the same thing based only on what context it takes place in, as if scholarly and academic research are the only “real” types of research, baffles me. Another topic for a future post, I guess.
  2. I apologize for the overgeneralization, the result of my own limited knowledge on this topic. This detail may only apply to the historical time period Gabaldon writes about. It may also only apply to certain tribes or groups within Indigenous culture.
  3. As always, I feel the need to mention that I don’t mean to pick on Gabaldon or call her out. I am a fan of her work. The reason the example from the Outlander series sticks out so much in my mind is only because this really was one of the early sparks that set me on this research path in the first place.

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