What I’m reading: May 2020

Between working from home and an upcoming sabbatical in the fall, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

So here’s what I’m reading for work and for fun and some other little stuff as well.

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Research is a process, writing is a craft (except when it’s a process)

Image by athree23 from Pixabay

I have a note scribbled on a piece of scrap paper hanging on a bulletin board in my office. It says: “Research is a process, writing is a craft.”

When I wrote this note, I felt like I was having one of those exciting “a-ha!” moments. The trouble is, it’s been there since December and I still haven’t quite figured out yet where that “a-ha!” is supposed to take me. What does this mean for the work I’ve been doing trying to understand the role of research in creative writing?

Let’s see if we can come up with some ideas.

 

Writing as a process versus writing as a craft

If I had to say, the spark of this idea probably came from something I read in The English Department: A Personal and Institutional History by W. Ross Winterowd about the history of how English developed as an academic subject. In that book, Winterowd says, “In creative writing classes, students express their genius; in composition classes, they learn to manage the limited abilities they bring with them” (p. 67).  In other words: in composition classes, writing is a process. In creative writing classes, writing is a craft.

Processes have steps. The traditional steps of the writing process are prewriting, writing, revising, and editing. Students in composition classes learn to take their writing through these four steps while working in various genres and using various techniques which they’ve studied in the work of others. Though some students are more successful at this than others, you don’t necessarily need any special talent to do it.

Craft is more mysterious. In an essay called “Figuring the Future: Lore and/in Creative Writing,” Tim Mayers says that craft is “the faint gray area of overlap between genius and rhetoric” (p. 3) In what I’ve read about creative writing pedagogy, there seems to be some disagreement about whether craft can really be taught or whether it requires some kind of innate talent on the part of the writer. If it’s all innate talent, the purpose of a creative writing program isn’t so much to teach students how to write but instead identify the students who have that talent and help them hone their craft. This premise gets critically examined in the book that Mayers’s essay comes from, which is called Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy.

So it seems like craft is the more artistic side of writing while process is the more functional side. Anyone can participate in the process of writing but only a privileged few can truly engage with the craft of writing.

 

Where research fits: process versus craft

Research is also a process. The traditional steps of research are outlined in the ACRL Standards. Basically, it starts with identifying a gap in knowledge, involves finding and evaluating information to fill that gap, and then ends with the ethical use of that information. While the Standards themselves are much more applicable to the academic research process, this general outline is flexible enough to fit here, though it does leave out some research contexts, like scientific research.

Anyway. Questions about the role of research in writing are usually about where research fits into the writing process. Most of the time, it’s treated as part of the prewriting stage. You’re gathering information to then write about. But really, it could come at any time.

Research is taught in composition classes because research is part of the writing process rather than part of the writing craft. Since creative writing classes focus on craft rather than process, they don’t discuss research.

 

The role of research in the craft of writing

This would all be well and good if all research processes looked the same. Unfortunately, they don’t. The research process that students learn in composition course probably shares some things in common with the process they would use for more creative purposes, but there are likely to be important differences, particularly in how creative writers use the information they find.

I would argue that the use of information, which is considered part of the research process, plays an important role in the craft of writing, whether you’re talking about creative writing or composition. How do you make decisions about what information to use and what information to ignore? How do you then incorporate that information into your writing, weaving it together with your own thinking?

We know how writers synthesize the information they find into a coherent argument as part of an academic paper or scholarly article because there are entire textbooks that explain what this looks like and how it’s done. But what about in a novel? If I want to, I can probably point to all kinds of details in the novels I read that are probably the result of research, like what Stephen King says about the taste of root beer in the 1960s in 11/22/63 (though to be fair, that might be based on his own memories) and what Diana Gabaldon says about the Native American culture her characters encounter in The Drums of Autumn. How do fiction writers weave this information into their work so that it can serve the plot in ways that seamlessly fit into the story they’re trying to tell?

This question seems especially important because so many of the creative writing how-to books I’ve read have been especially critical of writers who aren’t able to do this well, like Browne & King and their story of an aspiring writer who included an entire chapter in his novel about how different alarms function. Clearly, that author in question has been successful with the process of research but has not translated that success in such a way that is also successful in terms of craft.

 

The moral of the story

So I think what I’m getting at here is that research is generally viewed as part of the writing process, but not part of its craft. Yet there are aspects of research that are important if someone wants to be successful with the craft of writing. When it comes to creative writing, both of those ideas need to be talked about more because how the research process is carried out in creative contexts is likely to be much different from how it’s carried out in the academic contexts students generally learn about in composition courses.

I’m also tempted here to explore whether research could also be considered a craft. While anyone can perform the research process, it takes certain innate talent to be able to synthesize the information you find in a meaningful way.

 

Maybe a new idea to tack to my bulletin board.

 

Writing is like running

Image by Remaztered Studio from Pixabay

February is usually the month that I start thinking about running again. I do most of my running in the warmer seasons but I start out on treadmills in late winter/early spring to make my first outdoor runs of the year bearable and, theoretically, to prepare from some of the springtime 5K races in case I want to actually meet that particular New Year’s resolution for once. Also by February I need to introduce a little more variety to my routine between the indoor workout videos on DailyBurn, FitnessBlender, and PopSugar (as much as I love those platforms!).

I think a lot about the similarities between writing and exercise in general but running in particular. I write a lot on this blog about creative writing in a general sense but don’t spend a lot of time discussing my own relationship to writing. So as I gear up to restart my running habit, I thought I’d share some of where my thinking goes on this particular topic.

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Beyond 10 Books: Thoughts on Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle

I picked up Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle after reading another book in the same series, Plot & Structure. In large part, my interest was more personal than anything else. Description is something I’ve always struggled with in my own writing and I was intrigued by the idea of an entire book that covered the topic in as much detail as James Scott Bell covered plot and structure in his book. To that end, I definitely found some useful stuff including character profile worksheets and plot graphs that get you thinking not only about when and where your stories take place but what time of day and what the weather is like, even if that information is never mentioned in the scene itself.

What I also found, to my surprise, was probably more information on the role of research in creative writing than I’ve found in any writing book so far.

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The AWP Recommendations: Reflections of a former creative writing undergrad

So in my research on the role of research and in creative writing, I finally got around to reading the AWP Recommendations on Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates, a document that seems to guide the undergraduate creative writing curriculum in the same way the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy guides information literacy instruction.

As a former undergraduate creative writing student, this document was really interesting to me. I’d never seen it before and it made me think back to the content of the program I graduated from and suddenly it all made a lot more sense. The classes I took, from creative writing workshops to classes on literary criticism, all fit neatly within the AWP’s recommendations.

What surprised me was the emphasis the AWP Recommendations place on the idea that, at the undergraduate level, creative writing programs are not meant to teach students how to write but instead how to read. As an undergraduate creative writing student, you read in order to cultivate an appreciation of literary techniques and then, through writing workshops, attempt to apply those techniques in your own work. The reason for this seems to be that, at the undergraduate level, very few students will actually go on to become creative writers, so what’s the point of trying to teach them how to actually do creative writing? Apparently you have to wait for that until you get to the graduate level, assuming you are talented enough to get there.

I never got to the graduate level with my creative writing education. I was told as a student that, though my work was not publishable per se, I had a lot of potential and for that reason I would probably be a good candidate for an MFA program. I chose not to pursue this for a lot of reasons. First, I had no real mentor to help guide me through the process, something I would have needed as a first generation college student who didn’t know anything about graduate school. Second, despite the (qualified) praise, I had no real confidence in my abilities. Third, life happened and I chose a different path, one that has so far turned out to be very much the right choice for me.

Besides, I assumed my undergraduate degree gave me the credential I needed to consider myself educated in the subject of creative writing, at least at a basic level. I had already been taught how to be a writer. Or so I thought.

Having now discovered that the goal of my program was not to teach me how to write but instead to teach me how to read, I feel a little betrayed. And annoyed.

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It’s significant that popular books on creative writing don’t talk about research

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

So after the 10 books project was over, I mentioned that I would be writing up my findings from that project in a scholarly article I was hoping to publish in my field of study, library and information sciences. One article idea actually turned into two, including one that takes a closer look at creative writing pedagogy in addition to how-to books, which I’m hoping to eventually send to a journal in the writing studies field. But I got far enough on the one for the library and information science field that I decided to share it with two mentors who often read my work and give feedback before I submit it to a journal of peer review and (hopefully) publication.

In this case, one of my reviewers felt that the article I’d written was lacking and in particular that I’d been (in her words) screwed by my choice of books to study. She thought maybe looking into more recent books on creative writing might help resolve this issue since I’d named the age of the books under study as one of the limitations but I’d already started reading some newer books and hadn’t found anything different. They rarely, if ever, talked about research and when they did it was only in passing reference.

At first glance, this seems like a big problem for what I’m trying to do. Originally, I set out to try to understand the role that research plays in the creative writing process by reading 10 popular books on writing. I found that almost none of them talk about research, at least in the form I expected to find. So basically I found nothing that helps me meet the stated goal of the research and I can understand why, in my reviewer’s eyes, this seemed like a failure.

Ironically, the reason why this feedback was so important is because I hadn’t realized that this was the case. To my mentor, it looked like I had gone in search of something and found nothing. To me, I thought I’d found something that was actually rather significant and my failure was perhaps at least in part in not communicating the significance of what I found. I think the other failure was communicating why librarians like me should care about the gap I found or what, if anything, they need to do about it.

So I’m going to take a little space here to establish my thinking about these issues. Not because I think my mentor was wrong—like I said, it’s important for me to know that these connections are not clear and I think she was very right to make me aware of this, especially since potential peer reviewers might have the same questions. But because I need to do some thinking out loud about why I think this study is still important even though it might look like I didn’t have much in the way of findings.

Here’s what my thoughts have been so far.

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Beyond 10 Books: Thoughts on Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Recently I decided to expand my original 10 books project to include more books on creative writing beyond the original list in search of additional insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. Today, I’m taking a look at Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.

I picked Plot & Structure as the next item on my reading list because after revisiting the list of popular creative writing books on Goodreads, I spotted it in the top ten. It hadn’t been there when I started the original 10 books project, but it’s interesting to see the ways in which that list fluctuates over time so I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

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