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.
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.
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.
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.
I was just starting out in libraries around the time that Eat, Pray, Love was the big thing everyone was reading in their book clubs. I remember picking up a copy of the book out of curiosity and also watching the movie but my reading amnesia is such that the only thing I remember from either version is the Eddie Vedder song “Better Days.”
I must have liked the book well enough though because I remember when Big Magic first came out, I immediately put it on reserve. I also remember reading the first fifty pages or so and thinking, “Yeah, this isn’t for me.” And that was before I got to the comment that implies a certain lack of glamor in being a writer asked to speak about libraries as part of a panel. Hmph.
But in my quest to expand my readings on creative writing and creativity in general, I happened to catch sight of this book on the library shelf (it’s hard to miss: the colors on the cover are very bright) and on a whim decided to pick it up again. This time I got all the way through it and I’m still pretty sure the book isn’t for me but I was interested to find that in between all the talk about creativity as a magical thing, there was also some talk about research.
About a year ago, my article “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” was published in College & Research Libraries. This article represented something of a turning point for my research and writing, first because it drew inspiration from outside the library and information science field and second because it was a much bigger swing than what I’d previously written. But the big ideas in this article have led me down a path of discovery that has made me more excited about research and writing than I was before. And it’s led to some great conversations. So I’m really glad I took that big swing.
I wanted to take some space now to reflect on what taking that swing was like in part as a way to encourage others to do the same with their own ideas.