What I’m reading: May 2021

Image: Title screen for TV series Warrior, owned by Cinemax

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains discussion of and possible spoilers for Crime Show (podcast), Warrior (TV series on HBO Max), and Lego Masters (TV series on Fox/Hulu). 

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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?

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Sabbatical report

So my long-awaited research sabbatical finally came to an end last month. This was my first time going on sabbatical and it was…well, it was a lot different from what I envisioned when I first applied for leave in fall 2019. You know, back when the phrase “global pandemic” had yet to enter my lexicon. That’s not to say it was a bad experience and of course it’s an enormous privilege to be able to do something like this at any time, much less during a devastating economic and public health crisis. But the pandemic-related restrictions on travel and social interaction that have been in place to one degree or another since March 2020 meant that any goals I had for using my more flexible schedule to become more active in these areas had to be set aside. On the one hand, this meant I had no choice but to focus on my projects and be as productive as possible, which is not a bad thing. On the other, it made the experience of being on sabbatical much more isolating and burnout-inducing than it might have been otherwise.

I might do a future post on some of the challenges I faced and how I dealt with them but for now I wanted to focus on some of what I was able to accomplish during this time.

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What I’m reading: March 2021

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, or play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for The Neverending Story (both the book and the movies), the podcast Who the Hell is Hamish?, The 100 (TV series), WandaVision, and The Bridge (the HBO Max reality series).

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Reflecting on “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study”

As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study,” which was published in College & Research Libraries in 2019.

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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.

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Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on popular writing books, Part 3

Now that I’ve read through a list of “academic” writing books, I’m working my way through a set of more popular writing books in search of information on the role of research in fiction writing. Rather than devote whole posts to each individual book, I’ll just be sharing some brief thoughts as I go along. Today, I’m taking a look at 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and Writing Fiction by the Gotham Writers Workshop as well as revisiting Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

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Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on popular writing books, part 2

Now that I’ve read through a list of “academic” writing books, I’m working my way through a set of more popular writing books in search of information on the role of research in fiction writing. Rather than devote whole posts to each individual book, I’ll just be sharing some brief thoughts as I go along.

Today, I’m taking a look at How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman and No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. I’m also briefly revisiting On Writing by Stephen King.

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

Image by succo from Pixabay

So I’m at a point now where I’m starting to put the findings from my investigation research in fiction writing into article form and I ran into something of a problem when I started writing the abstract.

There are a lot of ways to write abstracts, but the model I like to use is one where you state the motivation for the research, the specific problem you were trying to solve with your research, your approach to the study, and your results. In this case, I knew all about the approach I took and what my results were. I even knew what my motivation was. The trouble was, I didn’t know what problem I was trying to solve other than that there was a gap in the existing literature and I wanted to fill it.

When it comes to library and information science scholarship, wanting to fill a gap in knowledge often isn’t enough to make your research important and publishable. It also has to be useful in some way. That’s because librarians pursue research not only to learn more about how people find, evaluate, and use information but also to find ways to improve their services, tools, and collections. Contributing something that can help prove the value of libraries to those with control over our budgets (and our existence) is generally seen as much more important than pursuing knowledge for the sake of it.

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