Thursday, June 27, 2013

Creative Writing as a Research Method?

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?


  1. Writing to discover the best way to write. Sounds deep, but it's simple. Never looked at it that way or attempted it. Not on purpose anyway.
    At least you are getting your money's worth from the classes.

  2. I've not taken a creative writing course like that. My friend did and her instructor also told her a lot about research but not much about writing.

    It was assumed you had that background, which she didn't. Maybe she was like those younger classmates who didn't want to ask questions. If you trying to digest something a little esoteric, it may take you a while to formulate a question. Meaning, those younger classmates may not have written much before the class.

    1. The class was a requirement for all the graduate students - so it was a mix of people doing creative writing, composition, and literature tracks. Just those two methodologies related specifically to creative writing.

      I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would have handled the class if I had done it in my twenties. I probably would have cried and dropped out. No way could I have read my work for fifteen minutes without passing out. :)

  3. I'm a pantser, so I end up experimenting a lot with the story. All of my novel is told from a first person perspective, but there are different ways of coming at a scene, choosing what to emphasize, who to pay attention to, etc.. I end up rewriting some scenes in a few different ways. Before I thought I was just spinning my wheels, but now I know I'm contributing to the research on literature!! :D

  4. I think so. I try to apply new things I've learned to each new story / book. I call it layering. Yes, I usually write several chapter ones [drafts for short stories] until I find some bones I want to put some flesh on.

    I like talking to people in the field for research the most.

    I experiment most with short pieces. Sometimes I really go out there. My crit group never likes my experiments. :D That's OK. I like them.

  5. That class sounds like it would be very helpful. Thanks for sharing. Dedicating a couple of hours is the right thing to do. A chapter a day is impressive. Go girl!

  6. What I find fascinating about research is how so little of what you've learned ends up making it into the book. It does lend a depth of authenticity though! :)

  7. That's so great, though stressful it may be. I would love to be able to take creative writing classes. Different, but similar amount and type of work sometimes. I do like trying to push the line, think outside the box, be different, what have you. Writer’s Mark

  8. Wow, these ideas are kinda blowing my mind! Never heard of creative writing as a research brain rather hurts as it stretches to take in this thought. :-) But I think I get it, and I like it...
    Some Dark Romantic