My biggest block: Research

Photo Credit: Jordan Whitt.

I’ve recently become a fan of DIY MFA: this is a site chock-full of resources and interesting articles – and as someone who has always “kind of sort of” wanted to go get an MFA but who really lacks the money to do so, I’m attracted to the idea of building my own MFA-like experience through my own discipline.

In a recent DIY MFA newsletter, the following prompt was offered as inspiration:

Is there a wall, a block, an obstacle that is getting in the way of your creative work? Name it, then consider whether there is some piece of it that you can responsibility for. When we blame external blocks for our lack of creative progress, we give away all control. But if take responsibility for the block (or even just a small piece of it), it opens the door for us to reclaim our power and break through that obstacle.

love this. Identifying blocks is the easy part – almost every writer I know could list off 1000 reasons why they’re not writing right now. Taking responsibility for moving through a block is far more difficult. After all, the very nature of a block is that it seems insurmountable. When I think about blocks with my coaching clients it is often in terms of breaking down the block – either into smaller pieces, or by trying to see what’s the fear that is lurking underneath the block, so we can tackle the root causes together. Of course, it’s always much easier to help someone else in this process; I’m a lot more myopic when it comes to my own writing practice.

When it comes to my novel, I know what my biggest pain point is right now. Research. Confession: I hate research. This is particularly unfortunate as the novel I am working on has an historical setting. Oh, irony. There’s part of me that knows research is necessary, but I loathe the idea of doing something that feels like school work when what I actually want to be doing is writing. However, my lack of willingness to research does impede my process. I become stuck obsessing over where my heroine would live, or what cafes she might have visited, and what exactly would she be wearing? These details are necessary to get right, and I often end up lost in a scene without the answers.

The frustrating this is, I know this is a block of my own making. And I wish I was one of those writers who does all of their research prior to starting the book. (In a way I’m surprised I’m not one of those writers, given how much of a keener I was in school and university. Maybe I used all of my studying zeal up?). However, things being as they are, the approach I’ve taken to getting through my research block are as follows:

  • Making my research as enjoyable as possible: I’ve been watching TV documentaries, reading novels, listening to history podcasts. These are ways of immersing myself in the period I am writing about, without having to, y’know, put too much effort in. It’s giving me enough material to go on for the moment, so that I can keep my writing momentum, without distracting me too much from the day to day production of the novel.
  • Accepting that I don’t need to know everything for the first draft: I think I sometimes have an unrealistic expectation that by the time I finish my first draft it should essentially be publication ready. This drive for perfectionism on the first go is not only unrealistic, it means I refuse to let myself to leave blanks to come back to later. I’ve been trying to let go of this idea recently – my manuscript is now dotted with notes to myself to follow up, check, decide on place names etc. Maybe the second draft is where my novel will get really fleshed out with historical detail – and this is ok. Revision is part of the writing process.
  • Building a reading list: I have been researching the research I want to do – compiling a little list of books I think will be useful to me at some point. It might sound like a procrastination technique (and maybe it is) but hopefully it will serve me well at some point.
  • Creating a research plan: Part of the benefit of making notes to myself about ideas I want to follow up on is that it is helping me narrow down the kinds of research questions I have. But more broadly, I do need to figure out what exactly the research I need to do will look like. This is one of my biggest sticking points – do I need to find a historian with expertise in this era to read my MS for me when it’s done? Do I need to travel to places? Or can one get away with the bit more haphazard approach that I’ve employed so far? I’m not really sure. As I move forward with my novel these questions will need to have clearer answers.

So there you have it – research might be a block, but it’s one that I do have tools to clamber over (eventually).

What would be your answer to the DIY MFA question? Can you see how you might move through it?

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