Friday 8 November 2013

Research in Creative Writing

My first formal supervision. My PhD supervisor invited me in for an early meeting. I slid the half mile from where I lived along the early-frost sprinkled pavements of the little town in north Wales. The heating had only just come on in his office and the end of my nose, the tips of my fingers and my feet remained cold. We could see our breath as we talked.
It was all going quite well. I’d completed about two thirds of the first draft of my young adult novel. I knew my research question was to do with what a young adult novel actually is. The experiment for me here was writing something of that length, writing for young adults and writing science fiction.
Of course, I’ve since established that the young adult novel has six characteristics that are sometimes present and one that is always present, that science fiction – or fantasy, real life, history or whatever else - is actually the setting and not a theme, and science fiction and fantasy perform the same function for adolescents that glove puppets and anthropomorphism do for young children.
“You should read X, Y and Z,” he suggested.
The hour ended. I dutifully trotted off to the university library. There were no young adult books. The explosion only happened at the turn of the century – though of course there have always been a few classic ones around. There was very little science fiction, examples were mainly classical and there were only a few critical works.
Later I wondered into town and happened upon the Oxfam second hand bookshop. There I found most of the titles he’d mentioned and an encyclopaedia of science fiction- all at very reasonable prices.
Most of my research was “out there” rather than in university libraries, though a couple of visits to Roehapmton were in order and it’s always useful to read scholarly texts in order to be reminded of academic tone and to prevent us from reinventing the wheel: what have other writers done before us? We find out by studying English Literature, a discipline that used to raise eyebrows as much as Creative Writing does today.   
Creative Writing is at once one of the oldest and one of the youngest disciplines. Much of our work is out in the world. At the institution where I now work the emphasis is on innovation and experiment; that feels good and in keeping with what a university is supposed to be about.   
I’m kept on my toes. The young adult novel is changing from what it was like when I completed my PhD. I have to be aware of that, adjust my practice and teach my students what I know.
But it’s a great life. As one of my undergraduates said to me the other day: “Gosh, you read a lot of books don’t you?” Well, yes. I’m duty bound to. Feel sorry for me!      

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