Lena Corazon

Flights of Fancy

Fiction Friday: Reflections of a Novel-Writing Sociologist

As I write this, I am almost through with the first draft of my MA thesis. It’s currently 66 pages long (about 23K, for those of you who think in word counts), and once I add the introduction, conclusion, and a few transitional paragraphs, I estimate it will clock in around 70-75 pages.

On the surface, academic and creative writing are a world apart. In academia, we build on the work of previous scholars. We draw heavily on the research that’s come before us,  and try to fit ourselves within an established framework while still demonstrating how our projects stand out.

In creative writing, get to wield our imaginations to the best of our abilities. While we have to fit ourselves into the boundaries of a genre, our success depends on the uniqueness of our voices, our ability to create worlds and characters who are distinctive, fresh, and compelling.

As I struggle to reconcile my two selves together, I’ve found that these worlds might not be as incompatible as I’ve always believed. I begin creative and academic projects in similar ways: immersing myself in research, reading as much as I can, and mapping the field.

Although my thesis will probably never make for exciting bedtime reading (unless you’re thrilled by sociological discussions of etiquette and social inequality), reflecting on the writing process has led me to realize that some of the lessons I’ve learned from creative writing are applicable.

1. It all begins with a question.

Source: f-oxymoron via flickr

In creative writing, we constantly ask questions about our work, our characters, and our worlds constantly. Trying to answer those questions helps us to invent new tales or to jumpstart flagging ones, and so we find ourselves toying with ridiculous scenarios, just to see what will happen.

What if a horde of zombie chimpanzees crash-land a spaceship in the middle of a cornfield just as the protagonist and her on-again, off-again boyfriend are arguing?

For academic research, questions are just as powerful and pivotal. Here, it’s usually “why” and “how come?” that orient us. (Yes, academics were probably the most irritating toddlers on the face of the planet.)

My thesis is no different. It was born out of countless questions, including one that came to me as I was working on my senior undergraduate thesis:

Why has etiquette played such a large role in shaping wedding practices in the United States? If etiquette is as important as historians of the wedding suggest, why hasn’t anyone else studied it in-depth?

Some of my favorite fiction projects have started the same way, as ideas that have tumbled around in my head, not quite substantial enough to explore in-depth, but too shiny and promising to ignore completely.

Learning to question our work throughout the writing process, to view it with all the curiosity and excitement that motivates us at the start of a project, is one key to unlocking our creativity.

2. Long projects are long.

By this point in my academic career, I have mastered the art of bullshitting crafting a 10-15 page paper. I have a sense of how I need to organize my ideas, the number of extended excerpts I can mobilize, and the number of subsections I’ll need to plan. With longer forms of writing, however, all those rules go straight out the window.

Nothing is scarier than being faced with a mountain of words — or, even worse, with the blank Word document, the one that will eventually become a mountain of words, but is nothing more than a empty sheet of possibility. We’ve all felt that stab of panic as we stare at the blanking cursor, waiting for the words to flow, and so each word, each sentence, each paragraph feels like a tiny victory.

As I grapple with understanding the structure of the novel, I am also struggling to grasp the mechanics of long-form academic writing. Scholarly writing is much more straight-forward, at least on the surface. There are no plot points to figure out, no need to sort out character motivations and overarching themes. Academics are expected to tell and not show, to reveal the our results in the very first paragraph (this makes me sad, because sometimes I’d like there to be a big reveal — I toiled in the archives for days and weeks, and hunted for clues! At last, the meaning of etiquette books was revealed to me…).

My adventures with NaNoWriMo have taught me that while I benefit from outlines, I am a nonlinear, scene-by-scene sort of writer. I’ve penned the thesis in the same way: in odd bits and pieces scattered around Scrivener, culled from past seminar papers and conference talks. Those chunks of text are somehow cobbled together by a form of alchemy that I can only guess at, fitted together to form a seemingly coherent product.

My take-away from all of this? Write, no matter how short or silly or stupid the idea is. Scrawl as many memos and notes as possible, keep track of how ideas jump around and leap about and evolve. Eventually, some sort of structure will emerge to unite some of those pieces together.

3. Sometimes things change.

Perhaps a better way of stating this is, “Plans almost always go awry.” I think we’ve all been there: we have an outline, a plan, a sense of where we want our story or our characters to go, and we are marching boldly in that direction when something manages to derail us and shake everything up.

There are two options when this happens: (1) roll with the punches and take the path of adventure, following that rogue character down the rabbit hole to see where she might lead you or (2) digging your heels in the ground and stubbornly refusing the deviate from the original plan.

For all its linearity, academic research is a circuitous path, one strewn with distractions and pitfalls and game-changers. Instead of exciting new characters or strange plot twists, we have things like that-article-you-didn’t-realize-existed, or the stray footnote that reveals something amazing/horrible, or (in my case) the project that’s wearing a disguise.

For about a year and a half, I was under the impression that I was studying etiquette books to learn more about the wedding. Imagine my shock when I realized that I was really doing the opposite: I was looking at a project about etiquette books, and using the wedding as a case study, a lens through which I could gain a deeper understanding about etiquette.

I am learning to embrace change, even though it’s terrifying and usually inconvenient. It’s the evolution of a project that is sometimes the most valuable, because it takes us to places that we never imagined.

4. Ideas need room to breathe.

I learned early on in my creative writing career that ideas need room to breathe. While writing on a regular basis is a useful and important habit to adopt, sometimes putting down the pen or walking away from the computer can be just as valuable. I’ve found that taking walks, brushing my teeth, straightening my hair, and doing the dishes are among the best ways to unsnarl problematic plots. What I didn’t anticipate was that academic work demands similar periods for percolation.

Max Weber, widely considered one of the “fathers” of sociology, expressed this very point in his famous essay, “Science as a Vocation.” He writes,

Ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us. The best ideas do indeed occur to one’s mind in the way in which Ihering describes it: when smoking a cigar on the sofa; or as Helmholtz states of himself with scientific exactitude: when taking a walk on a slowly ascending street; or in a similar way. In any case, ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.

The image of the solitary scientist reclined on the couch, smoking a cigar and searching for the perfect idea makes me giggle, but I think Weber has the idea right: ideas come when we least expect them.

It was through binging on episodes of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise (my procrastination method of choice) that helped me to see why my thesis project has contemporary relevance, even if it is a historical project. The idea that “money can’t buy you class” is one deeply embedded in 1920s etiquette books. Even though many of the etiquette practices from the period are antiquated today, that basic concept not only remains relevant, but organizes the way that our society operates.

In a message to my fellow ROW80 participants, Tiffany A. White has said something similar, encouraging creative writers to “plow through the writing weeds” by disengaging from our WIPs. It’s okay to disconnect — sometimes procrastination is a useful tool.

5. Passion: the magic ingredient. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for “passionate devotion” since reading Natalie Hartford’s wonderful post about “doing what we love.” Writing is hard, stressful work, whether it’s creative or academic. Sometimes it feels torturous and painful, and I wonder exactly why I’m putting myself through all of this when I could’ve picked some other profession that might have been less taxing.

Writing requires heart and soul. At the end of the day, I love what I do. I became a sociologist out of a desire to not only engage in a “ruthless critique of everything existing” (to quote Karl Marx), but to grapple with social inequality in a way that could provoke critical thinking. I chose to add fiction-writing on top of the mix because I know that without tapping into my creative potential, I’m incomplete.

What lessons have you drawn from your writing experiences? 

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  1. Interesting post, Lena. I guess I’m a fiction writing psychologist…I had not thought to compare the process of writing my thesis and writing fiction but as I read your post I realized the similarities. for example, I didn’t have a good question to begin the process of my thesis. Rather I had an idea. then I did a bunch of research and eventually I figured it all out and actually used about 90% of the research I’d pulled. this is the way I write a book – I’m a pantser. so I don’t know where I’m going when I start, but I always get there.

    I think my fiction writing is a little stiff for today’s readers (and I work on that alot) but my business writing is a bit too informal for my boss LOL. But I continue to evolve and grow in both areas. Life is good.

    thanks for giving me food for thought
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    • Louise, I’m so glad to hear that you found this interesting! It’s so funny — I count myself as a “plantser” of sorts with fiction. I love unleashing my muse and seeing where she’ll take me. And yet, I have fallen for outlines and structure, so I sort of straddle the two worlds. It was really strange when I realized that I tackled my academic work in the same way. Learning to accept the fact that projects evolve, and allowing myself the freedom to let things change, has really helped on both levels.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. I applaud you your ability to go from academic to creative writing. When I finished school, it took me a long time to knock the academia out of my novel. It read like a term paper ~ very flat and full of research-like descriptions. It was awful! Then I finally found my creative mojo and left the term papers behind. It was nirvana!

    Well done on your thesis. Those buggers are horrid beasts at times that need to be wrangled into some semblance of brilliance. Ugh, I’m having nightmarish flashbacks to my thesis! Actually, it was quite fun to research and write, but I had two small children at the time and that’s hard.

    I love your analogies and writing processes for both creative and academic writing. Sounds like you’ve got it all under control and you’ll do fine. You’re super smart, lady!
    Tameri Etherton recently posted..Trashy TV Recap is all about the Cooking!My Profile

    • It can be so hard to make the switch from one style to the other, although I think I am guilty of the opposite: making my academic writing a little too ‘prose-y,’ with figurative language that probably doesn’t belong in social science. I do my best to strip all of the flowery stuff out, but every so often, I can’t help but slide one or two examples in, just to make it a little less boring, lol.

      I am in awe of anyone who can tackle grad school with children. A few of my friends have kids, and I just don’t know how they do it. I feel like I can hardly take care of myself and get my work done, and there’s just one of me.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. This is a fantastic post! I, too, have done quite a bit of academic and business writing, and I hadn’t really stopped to think about any similarities between the two. I always assumed they were separate beasts. You are calling that assumption into question, and I think you are right. They are more connected than not.

    I think the reason I couldn’t put the two together in my mind was because your 5th ingredient – passion – was absent for me in the business writing. That is why I ultimately had to leave my job in order to pursue creative writing. It left me drained at the end of the day with no desire to sit back down at the computer.

    Your project, on the other hand, does sound passion-worthy. How could it not with weddings as your lens?

    Great post!
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    • Julie, thanks for coming by and commenting! It’s funny — I hadn’t quite put my finger on the element of passion until recently, when I realized that I was in danger of becoming too overwhelmed by my creative work at the expense of my grad school work… and it’s way too early in my career to think about ‘retiring.’ I had to remind myself that I took on sociology for a reason, and that reason still exists. You’re right, though, anything that has to do with weddings is definitely fun. 😀

  4. Love this post, Lena! Your talents in writing creatively, academically and blog-style (which may be a class of its own…) are sharp and evident. I’ve struggled to find balance in my writing, personal and professional life. Once I began recognizing the importance of rest, my productivity and emotional health (ha) started to flourish. Still a WIP, of course… But good writers learn every day, right?

    Thanks for the precious insight. And CONGRATS on the near completion of your thesis!!! *happy dance in your honor*
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    • August, thank you so much! I actually had a really hard time with this post — I couldn’t decide if what I was trying to say was translating the way that I wanted to, so I’m really happy to see that it does make sense.

      Balance is that ephemeral thing that I feel like I am always chasing, and it’s especially hard because I pretty much work from home and make my own hours. I’m learning to give myself weekends and days off, and to understand that I don’t have to be productive every single moment of the day. It’s all a work in process, right? 😉

  5. Lena, your comparrison between the two styles of writing is so interesting. Passion is absolutely key to anything we do and the more passion we have for a project, the easier it seems. Thanks for the great analysis.:)

  6. Lena, You are going to be a great sociologist and you already are an amazing writer. Thanks for sharing this insight with us.
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  7. Great post! I feel informed, uplifted, and motivated to go write. Plus, lucky that I no longer have to deal with academic writing. Those late night and early morning sessions to get the paper done will not be missed. Because when I write now, it’s something I love doing, not just to get a grade. For me, that’s what makes the difference.
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    • Emma, I am thrilled to hear that you found this uplifiting! I have to say, I’m really glad that I’m in a grad program where grades don’t quite matter. It takes a lot to fail a class (never show up for class, skip assignments, etc.), and if you do the basic requirements with a decent amount of effort, you’ll likely get a B or higher. I feel really lucky to be in a profession where I get paid to write and to think about things, more or less. It is an incredible privilege, and one that I don’t appreciate nearly enough.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Lena, you are an amazing talented person. I loved this post!

    What a balancing act you are demonstrating. And yet you are succeeding at both levels! I applaud you!

    Btw, I also favor the question Why? I drove my parents crazy with that word. LOL!

  9. Congrats, Lena! I’ve found in the years since I wrote my thesis (in archaeology), the things I learned have spilled over into my fiction in myriads of ways. Part just the discipline of finishing something so obscure and difficult, part bringing imagination to the exercise. You’ll bring new insights to both your worlds as a steampunk sociologist!
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  10. Congrats on an almost done Thesis! I’m intrigued by your subject. Wonderful post Lena. You did a fantastic job comparing the two styles and I found myself nodding with your points. You were also extremely motivating, thank you 🙂
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  11. Awesome post Lena! I love this–“Sometimes it feels torturous and painful, and I wonder exactly why I’m putting myself through all of this when I could’ve picked some other profession that might have been less taxing.”
    It describes those doubtful moments exactly!!
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  12. Absolutely loved this post! And thanks for the fahhhb shout out! 🙂
    It’s interesting to compare the two styles of writing to see how they can work together and how they differ. So fascinating. I also love how you are able to find your blog voice in the midst of it all. I think you are pulling together the best of all your writing worlds to make your voice, whatever the venue, unique and compelling!
    Your thesis sounds ahhhmazing and I actually think it’d make for a GREAT read!
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  13. Great insights, Lena! This post is almost like a mini-thesis, actually 🙂 Comparing academic writing and creative writing is genius, and your ideas are spot-on. Planning, researching, finding answers: they’re all part of both.

    I worked at a university one, and I couldn’t agree more with “academics were probably the most irritating toddlers on the face of the planet”.

    The “writing God” strip is awesome!
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  14. I love this post! What a fantastic piece you have put together. You are an amazing writer Lena. Thank you for sharing all that you have learned. I believe, in the midst of it all, you found a very unique you that shines in your writing style. I, for one, am excited to see where that leads you. Will you roll with the punches and follow the characters down new paths like I do?
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