In my investigation into the role of research in creative writing, I’m stumbled across an interesting wrinkle. Writers don’t talk about the research they might do as part of their work as much as you might think (at least in the sources I’ve read), but when they do, they often talk more about research as a way to cultivate curiosity and inspiration rather than research that is used to fill a gap in their knowledge. When it comes to conducting research for inspiration, their advice is usually to read widely and/or deeply and seek out experience that may be useful for a story or poem idea later.
I think cultivating curiosity is a necessary part of any creative endeavor but I’m having trouble deciding if this type of research counts as research.
Normally, I try not to be a snob about what counts as research and what doesn’t. There may have been a time when “real” research involved the use of the library and the citation of sources, but that time has passed. Now everyone with access to an internet connection conducts research in one form or another on a daily, if not hourly basis.
Not everyone will agree that the average Google search counts as research. Some might prefer to call it “information-seeking” which, among scholars, tends to be the preferred term for any type of research that happens to not be academic, scholarly, or scientific in nature. Personally, I think having two different terms for what’s essentially the same thing is kind of elitist. I prefer to think of research as any formal or informal process that’s undertaken to fill a gap in knowledge, build on existing knowledge, or create new knowledge.
That’s why I’m a bit stuck when it comes to whether cultivating curiosity/searching for inspiration counts as research.
Take “seeking out exciting life experience” as an example. This type of hands-on research comes up a lot in creative writers’ discussions about the research that they do, like when Chris Cleave talked about undergoing elite athletic training to make his own story about an elite cyclist more authentic in a Writer’s Digest interview from a few years ago. To me, this example is obviously research. Cleave had identified a gap in his knowledge and sought to fill that gap with direct experience (as opposed to reading about it in a book or online). He also had a somewhat specific goal in mind for how this experience would help enhance the story he was trying to tell.
Now imagine if Cleave had done this elite training just for the sake of the experience itself. To add that experience to his library of experiences so that maybe one day he could draw on it to help tell a story. Maybe the experience would lead to a specific idea. Maybe it wouldn’t. The point is about stocking up on the type of experience that could lead to possible inspiration down the line rather than feeding an existing idea.
A lot of writers whose books I’ve read about writing would call that research. I really kind of don’t think it is, at least not by the definition I’m using.
This makes me think of the research that’s out there about curiosity. I haven’t read as deeply on this topic as I would like, but as far as I can tell, some scholars believe that there are two main types of curiosity. One is the type of curiosity that leads you to seek out information in order to solve a specific problem. The other is a type of curiosity that leads you to seek information not because you need that information for anything but because you find the experience of seeking information or learning something new pleasurable. It seems to me that seeking hands-on experience with athletic training to fill a gap in knowledge that will help enhance a story about an elite athlete is more in line with the first type of curiosity while seeking out experience for the sake of possible inspiration somewhere down the line is more aligned with the second.
As far as I understand it, scholars who study curiosity aren’t really even sure the second type of curiosity counts as curiosity. The answer sort of depends on what it is about curiosity that causes us to seek information or experience to sate that feeling of being curious. No one can really figure out what that is, though suggestions include the idea that humans find the experience of ignorance to be unpleasant and so follow their curiosity in order to escape the unpleasant feeling that comes with not knowing something.
The interesting thing to me, I guess, is why creative writers call this search for inspiration research. Because they do—the word research is often (though not always) used in direct connection with the activity of seeking out information or experience in order to build a stockpile of knowledge that can later be put to some as yet unknown creative use. Not only do they think of this as research, but it’s a type of research they seem much less reluctant to talk about than the more directed type of information-seeking that I would more readily think of as research.
I’m guessing the answer has to do with our romantic notions about what a writer does and how they do it. Research that requires hours of poring through stacks of information (literally or metaphorically) isn’t sexy. Research that feeds the muse (or whatever you want to call it) that allows creative writers access to the mystery of imagination is.
After reading something like 40 books about writing, I’ve kind of lost patience with those more romantic notions of creativity, the ones that portray it as something that you can only access if you are in possession of some sort of special genius. So maybe my reluctance to think of research-for-inspiration as actual research is rooted in that. Because while I think cultivating curiosity is an important part of the creative process that writing book audiences benefit from learning more about, I want to hear more about the stuff that writers seem to think is more boring or mundane. Because it’s not boring or mundane at all. For a lot of writers, this more mundane type of research is a big part of what makes storytelling even possible.