I took my first graduate level English class this past Spring, Intro to Graduate Studies in English. Basically, it was a crash course in literary theory. We also got practice writing different types of documents that will likely be required in future classes: an annotated bibliography, a précis, a book review, and a research paper.
We also got practice presenting - lots of practice. We were required to do a fifteen minute presentation of our final paper. It may as well have been an hour.
The other thing covered in the class was research methods for English studies, which is an odd thing because, for creative writing in particular, what's there to research? All you have to do is read some books and do some internet searches, right?
But this ended up being the cool thing about the class. In the last several weeks, professors would come to class and speak on a different type of research methodology and how it applies to research they've done. My background is in software development - I'm a very logical, black and white kind of girl, so a lot of the topics seemed like a stretch to me.
The book we read was Research Methods for English Studies by Gabriele Griffin. Some of the topics presented were visual methodologies, oral histories as a research method, discourse analysis, and biography/autobiography as a research method. Each of the topics made no sense to me until after it was presented.
My class was full of young people, twenty-somethings that worked at Starbucks and were not confident enough to ask questions. Or maybe they didn't get the fact that the money they paid for tuition was a fee for having their questions answered.
I've been at the front of a room facing disinterested people before. When no one spoke up, I asked questions. By the third presentation, this was my implied role in the class.
For the presentation on visual methodologies, my question was (and sort of still is) this: What do visual arts have to do with research you would do for a research paper or a creative work? The answer: we paint pictures with words. Very true. But I still have a hard time connecting the word research with visual arts.
The one topic that became very clear and useful to me as a writer is creative writing as a research methodology. Before the presentation and even after reading the text, I had the idea in my mind that this meant reading your genre, not just reading it, but knowing the works of the best writers and paying attention to the craft they use to unfold the story. This summer I'm reading Toni Morrison for that purpose.
But that wasn't it at all. Not even close.
The idea is that we are doing research every time we write a sentence. With every draft we experiment with different ways to tell the story for the optimum effect. We arrange words in a precise manner and rearrange them again. In doing this, we are contributing to the field of English literature. Huh.
It's kind of a crazy idea, but I'm finding it to be true with the novel I'm working on. I wrote the first draft in third person the way I always write. This novel is historical fiction set in western Virginia in the 1930's. I generally knew about the region, the time period, and the living conditions. My people are from that area, and I feel connected to it. I knew I had a lot of research to do, but I opted to get the story down on the page before adding most of the historical backdrop.
The story is written. The characters are very real to me. The plot, sub-plots, and themes are all there on paper and won't change with revisions. When I reread the chapters, I like the story.
I've done my research (the normal kind where I read a lot of books and visited the location). I need to modify the details of the setting and the historical details - that alone is a huge amount of work. But I find myself in research mode - this odd, creative-writing-research mode that I'd never considered before. And it's taking me weeks and lots of experimenting with telling the story different ways to get a single chapter just right.
The problem is I need about 21,000 words to be just about right by the end of August when my next class starts. So I'm going to allocate 2 hours a day to writing, and I'm not sure that's enough. I normally set my goal to be a chapter a day, but that's not going to be realistic at this stage.
This morning while painting the walls of the stairwell that leads to my basement, I finally found the way to present chapter two. I put down the paintbrush and grabbed a journal so I could write it down quickly before the idea was lost in the paint fumes. I have a lot of painting to do. Next time I'll have a pen and journal with me.
Do you experiment with multiple versions of the same chapter? Have you ever thought about the act of writing creatively to be a mode of research?