Thursday, August 26, 2004

A Beginning

Like many writers, I will begin by telling a story. Recently I met a high-school classmate for the first time in nearly 30 years. Now when meeting an old classmate, my mind invariable turns to the high school yearbook which often would list a person’s name, along with the phrase: “most likely to ______.” When my classmates and I would talk about this old friend, who I will call Marie, back in high school, many of us would frequently express the opinion that she was the person in our class “most likely to write the great American novel.” We said this because she was verbose, a great prose stylist, intellectually brilliant, and full of ideas. Yet when I met Marie, I learned that she was working as a high-powered, government lawyer, and had never done any serious writing. When I asked her why, she responded: “I tried, but I discovered I didn’t have anything to say.”

Her answer troubled me, and I began asking myself why it troubled me. As I thought about her answer, I began to realize that Marie’s situation was one which not only afflicts people like her, people who showed great promise as writers, but who never actually wrote; but also afflicts many successful professional writers. In the latter case, it has been called “writer’s block.”

While thinking about this “block,” this situation where the writer “doesn’t have anything to say,” I’ve come to the conclusion that this condition is simply a case of writers asking themselves the wrong question. Instead of asking themselves “what do I have to say?” writers should be asking, “what do I want to know?” I say this because my own experience as a creative writer, journalist, technical writer, and academic writer has helped me see that writing is less about “expressing yourself” than it is about “searching for knowledge.” To speak metaphorically, what I am arguing is that writing and research are two sides of the same coin.

Now when it comes to many kinds of writing, that point seems self-evident. No one will argue that writing a scholarly article, a business plan, or a scientific lab report can be done without research. Even something as routine as writing a grocery list might require research—for example, scanning the sales in the local newspaper, or searching through a file of coupons. Yet, as Patrick Bizzaro has argued, creative writing (by the way, I’ve always hated that term. What are other kinds of writing? Uncreative?) presents us with a special case.

Bizarro points out that many writers adopt an attitude about research famously expressed in Edgar Allen Poe’s early sonnet, “To Science” In that poem, Poe seems to be claiming that the act of scientific observation seems to drain the life out of experience. And while Poe’s later works treat science much more favorably, this view that scientific research methods and creative writing exist in a state of opposition is still widely held by many writers. And while I obviously don’t hold to that view myself, I have come to learn that Poe’s romantic view of poetic writing does contain a measure of truth, an idea I will return to another blogday.

Bizarro disagrees with Poe’s romantic view, and convincingly argues that “at least three kinds of research: classroom-based research, ethnographic research, and historical research” demand the same sort of “skills valued by creative writing teachers in teaching students how to write” (303). I am convinced that Bizarro is on the right track here, and I believe that both the creative writing community and the community of writers doing “scholarly” or “scientific” research would gain from a dialogue. And by dialogue, I mean a search for common ground, rather than two sides shouting their positions at each other. Fortunately, what is considered as “scientific research” today is a much broader category of knowledge-making processes than those that were considered to be acceptable in Poe’s time. It is my hope that this dialogue might begin to influence all kinds of writing research, as we begin to answer a question I pose in my own research methods syllabus “How can we study the world of creatures and things in a way which is consensual rather than conquering, participatory rather than detached, and action-oriented, rather than separating the worlds of theory and practice?”

Works Cited

Bizarro, Patrick. “Research and Reflection in English Studies: The Special Case of Creative Writing.” College English 66 (2004): 294-309.


Blogger Bruce said...

Interesting. Keep it up. I really don't think of myself as a writer, but I am constantly thinking about issues that I find fascinating. This usually leads to some need to express what I have learned through examination. I write. Over a year after starting to blog I have put up over 300,000 words on all types of topics.

2:55 PM  

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