I’ve been thinking a lot lately about NaNoWriMo. If you’re not familiar, NaNoWriMo is an affectionate nickname for National Novel Writing Month, a sort of annual creative writing event where participants attempt to write a 50,000 word manuscript between the beginning and end of November. A lot of libraries will plan events around NaNoWriMo, like reserving space for anyone who wants to gather and work on their writing together. It’s fun and challenging and if you’re successful, you get a cute little downloadable certificate at the end.
I used to participate in NaNoWriMo every year. I don’t quite remember when or why I dropped off, but if memory serves, I probably did it somewhere between 5 and 7 times and even though some years it was definitely a big struggle, I managed to meet the set goal each time. I actually still have some of the certificates I got for “winning” hanging up in my office (if you ever talk to me on Zoom, you can see them in the background if you squint).
I thought about taking it up again this year but even though I always enjoyed it when I did in the past, I decided against it partly because of the way my relationship to writing and productivity has changed since my original run with it.
So I haven’t been publishing quite as much lately because there’s currently a lot of change going on at my library, some of which is directly affecting my position and the work I do. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it can be difficult to know how to talk about change while you’re still in the middle of it. I’m sure I’ll have some useful reflections on all of this at some point, but for now it’s a little harder than usual to know what to say or how to say it.
But I didn’t want to leave this space blank in the meantime so I decided for this week at least I’m just going to do a fun post that’s tangentially related to some of what I usually talk about here on this blog, especially with regard to creative research.
I want to talk about the TV series Leonardo as both a portrayal of creative research and a product of creative research.
Note: The following post contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Leonardo.
Warning: The following post contains some discussion of (fictional) suicide and related mental health issues. Read with care. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can offer immediate support or refer to these resources from the National Institute of Mental Health.
So a few weeks ago I talked about my new adventures in creative research, something I’m taking on to supplement my scholarly investigations into the role of research in creative writing. Long story short: creative research (i.e. research to enhance a creative work) is something I’ve never engaged in much myself because the creative writing I do is more for fun than Serious Work, but I wanted to try it out as part of a revision of a novel-length story I completed the first draft of a few months ago.
I talked before about how two of the characters in that story work in a bar and how I ended up doing research using internet sources like YouTube and Liquor.com to try to add a little authenticity to the work they do in the story and how they each think and talk about their work. In this case, I wasn’t able to go to the location the bar in the story is loosely based on because of COVID and time issues, but I was able to learn enough from the internet to improve the generic BS about bartending and cocktails that was in the original draft.
So I’m still working on that same project. In addition to working in a bar, the characters in question also play music. Specifically, guitar. One is in a band, the other is just starting to learn. This has been another area of research but it’s one where I’ve managed to reap the benefits of hands-on, in-person research rather than just scrolling the internet.
I’ve spent a couple of semesters now teaching students about different research contexts, including academic, scholarly, creative, personal, professional and scientific. For the most part, they do really well with understanding the idea that research works differently in different situations and what some of the differences between each context might be. They seem to especially like learning about personal research because they like hearing that all of the Googling they’ve been doing all their life to fulfill their personality counts as research, at least by the standards of our particular course.
There’s one type of research they have more difficulty with than others, though, and that’s creative research.
In the few years I’ve spent investigating the role of research in creative writing, I’ve started thinking a lot about the role research plays in my own creative work, and how that’s changed as a result of my scholarly work.
I write fiction for fun, which I know is a statement that is likely to make a lot of professional writers grind their teeth at least a little. In saying that writing is a form of play for me, I’m not trying to trivialize or diminish what professional writers do or how much work it is. But in this life there are people who knit without the goal of one day becoming a fashion designer. There are people who run without the goal of one day becoming an Olympic athlete. And there are people who write without the goal of one day becoming a bestselling author. Or even getting published.
Because fiction writing is a form of play for me, I don’t focus that much on the quality of what I’m writing. Questions of authenticity and accuracy are pretty much moot. Which means research is pretty moot too. So except for a quick Google search here or there, I have always tended to paper over gaps in my knowledge with imagination or, frankly, BS. What does it matter? No one’s ever going to see any of it.
But in studying creative research, I thought it might be interesting to start practicing some of what I was trying to preach. Or at least attempt to explore the role of research in my own work so that when I talk to authors about their creative research, I have some experience of my own to work from.
So I recently finished a novel-length story that I’ve been working on for roughly a year and a half. I have a drawer full of stories like this—finished drafts of works that I have little or no intention of returning to. This time, rather than moving on to the next idea or the next project, I felt compelled to go back and actually try to revise what I had done. If nothing else, I wanted to spend more time with these characters and, after spending a lot of time reading about revision, I wanted to see what the process was actually like.
On a recent weekend, I was feeling relatively slothful and ended up binge-watching the first season of Making the Cut on Amazon Prime. My understanding is that Making the Cut is basically a show where Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn decided to take their toys and go home (or at least to another platform) after leaving Project Runway. I haven’t seen Project Runway since college, so my memories of that show are vague but I think the main differences here is that this show has more of an international focus because it’s seeking fashion designers/entrepreneurs who will become the Next Big Global Brand. Or something.
And obviously, it also has a lot of Amazon-related tie-ins. Product placement in a show is always a bit sketchy but here I’m really not sure if it does the designers any favors to have the more accessible looks they create made available on Amazon. Buying clothes on Amazon is a notoriously huge gamble. Some people I know have been able to find nice stuff on there. Meanwhile, every piece of clothing I’ve ever bought on that site has been crap. I’m sure the intended effect of having these designers’ clothes available on Amazon (other than to give the designers more exposure) is to elevate Amazon’s reputation as a seller of clothing. Instead, I feel like the designers kind of suffer by the association, at least in my mind.
Anyway, that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because I want to talk about Making the Cut as an example of creative research.