I did it. I read 10 popular books on writing. I had some thoughts.
Here they are.
My interest in the role of research in creative writing has recently led me to some texts on creative writing pedagogy. I just finished Can It Really Be Taught? Now I’ve just started Released Into Language by Wendy Bishop. The Elephants Teach, The Theory of Inspiration, and some others are also on my reading list.
What seems obvious from these readings is that the creative writing workshop is the most common model for teaching creative writing even though there seem to be a lot of questions about how useful it is.
One of the best fictional illustrations I’ve ever seen of the creative writing workshop experience was in a brief scene at the beginning of the movie Wonder Boys (based on the book by Michael Chabon) where the students in the class tear apart Tobey Maguire’s work while he sits there, silenced by the gag rule and either stone-faced or zoned out. Then another student, seeing the way he’s being attacked, chimes in with more positive/constructive feedback to save him. The students in the class hate their classmate’s work largely because they don’t understand it and the writer in question is unable to explain his thinking to them, even if he wanted to (though in this case, it seems unlikely he’d want to, given the nature of the character).
You could argue about whether this is a realistic representation of the workshop environment, but it certainly captures what it feels like to be in that environment, at least based on my memories of my own undergraduate workshop days, particularly a comment element called the “gag rule.”
Early on in the information literacy course I teach each semester, I introduce students to a couple of common myths about research, things students commonly believe because of their experience with academic research. This includes things like “research is about finding the right answer” and “citation sucks” (which I tell them isn’t really a myth because, well, citation does suck).
Now that I’m spending some time thinking about the role of research in creative writing, I’m finding that there’s a whole other set of myths/beliefs that keep cropping up, ones that I hadn’t thought about or that don’t apply to the type of research I usually teach.
Back to Creative Writing School by Bridget Whelan reminds me a little bit of a book I used to own (and might still have, buried somewhere in my childhood closet in my parents’ house) called Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg. Room to Write is a book of writing exercises that was given to me as a gift when I was a teenager. At one point, I was determined to complete every exercise in the book.
It turns out I am terrible at writing exercises. Despite that, I still bought another book a few years ago called 642 Things to Write About. It is currently collecting dust on a shelf in my office. I think I did three of the exercises. Same with Start Where You Are.
So you might think that my past record with writing exercises might color my thoughts on Back to Creative Writing School. I thought it might, too, but luckily my purpose in reading it wasn’t to complete any of the exercises. It was to learn whether the author might have anything to say about the role of research in the writing process.
Back to Creative Writing School was number 9 on the list of the top 10 most popular writing books on Goodreads (as of June 2018). Below are my thoughts, some related to my research, some not.
So I’ve mentioned before that in my quest to read and analyze 10 popular books on creative writing to see how/whether they talk about the role of research in the creative process, not every book is a good candidate, but I’m being a completist about it anyway because you never know.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King is the ninth book on the list. Below are some thoughts.
I first learned about the #OwnVoices movement in young adult literature earlier this year when Amelie Wen Zhao made headlines by pulling her work from publication due to criticism of “problematic content.” The movement made headlines again a few months later when Kosoko Jackson, a vocal member of the movement, was forced to pull his own book for similar reasons. Since then, there have been several thinkpieces about the movement and the motivations of the people behind it, including questions of whether what they’re doing constitutes censorship when it leads to books being pulled from publication.
As I understand it, what the #OwnVoices movement is demanding is that stories about marginalized groups should only be told about members of those marginalized groups. This seems to be a reaction to the fact that, historically speaking, books about marginalized groups tend to be written by privileged white people. At least, the ones that get published and get awards. The stance of the #OwnVoices people is that these stories should only be told in the voices of those who have actually experienced marginalization.
I am not particularly comfortable with what the #OwnVoices movement does or how it does it or cancel culture in general. But it seems to me that the movement was born of a legitimate grievance and one that points to just how problematic the myth of the artist as an inspired genius can be.(1)
So if I’m being honest, I had never heard of Zen in the Art of Writing or any of the essays in it before encountering it on the list I’m using for my project. It wasn’t the only book on the list I wasn’t familiar with but it was the only one by Ray freakin’ Bradbury.
I tend to think of Ray Bradbury’s work as Required Reading, like the kind of thing that’s liable to show up on a high school summer reading list or maybe a college course syllabus. Which is ironic, considering how in at least one of the essays here Bradbury goes on and on about how teachers and librarians don’t appreciate the value of genre fiction like the stuff he writes.
Anyway, in reading this book, I had a couple of takeaways, some of which are related to my research project and some aren’t.