You Should Be Working on That Book Project -- No, the Other One

By Doctor Comrade

[This post originally appeared on GradHacker.]

If we know anything about dissertations and theses, it’s that they will consume your life-energy and regurgitate you as a husk of your former self. They demand time, attention, vitality, and money. For those in the humanities, less than half of PhD students finish dissertations, and the numbers aren’t much better for social sciences and STEM. According to Wendy Robinson, sometimes life and job opportunities make finishing difficult. Amidst my own struggles in grad school, I ultimately found a release that allowed me to siphon off my excess energy, relax in my own hobby, and refine some of my writing skills: I started writing fiction.

“I’ll just do Hamlet first, then I’ll start my dissertation.”

“I’ll just do Hamlet first, then I’ll start my dissertation.”

Was I procrastinating? Absolutely. But I’m a firm believer in the mantra that has been often misattributed to John Lennon: time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. Or perhaps you prefer the punk-rock band Rise Against’s version: the time that we kill keeps us alive. The time I spent writing fiction distracted me from my studies, but it also helped me explore my motivations and goals, my inner desires as well as my external ambitions. And because of the distractions I discovered through writing fiction, I was able to better grasp how to write non-fiction.

Writing fiction has three benefits that I will address: expressing internal conflict in an unrestricted manner, exercising creative muscles for non-fiction work, and channeling creative energy. Because, as Eva Lantsoght has argued, research is actually a creative endeavor that must transgress current boundaries, you should build those creative instincts early. Where better to violate standards of current knowledge than by tearing them apart in a fictional universe? Where better to explore the limits of your thinking than in a consequence-free imaginary place? There’s something truly liberating about creating, shaping, deleting, and rebuilding anything any way you want.

Fiction is productive introspection

Writing fiction is highly rewarding and it allows us to explore the inner depths of our experiences to a degree not afforded to us by journaling or blogging. It would be naïve to say that people objectively and transparently chronicle their experiences in journals and blogs because we are always writing for an audience. And writing a non-fiction version of our lives is limited by real-world events. On the other hand, being creative and making up a fictional universe opens up possibilities for exploring feelings—frustration, determination, motivation, admiration—that may be foreclosed by reality.

When you can make events or characters up, you can make them mean whatever you want them to mean, without being constricted by experience. Of course, all writing is autobiography, but fiction allows us to express ourselves in ways that are impossible in the real world. When I wrote about a noble knight fighting a giant monster, perhaps I saw myself slaying a research seminar paper. Or when I wrote apocalyptic fiction about my wife and me returning home to the Northwest after a natural disaster, maybe I was writing about my own homesickness. In essence, I could hide behind fiction, and in doing so expose myself in ways that I could never articulate in a strictly autobiographical setting.

Creating something that we can call “fiction” might have more truth in it than anything we might call “non-fiction.”

Fiction translates to non-fiction

Most of us approach non-fiction like it’s second nature, and in terms of our careers and scholarship, our writing skills have to be fully and finely honed. But working out our creative side can have impacts on our scholarship as well. Many of the best historians take a lot of creative license when constructing historical narratives. Being creative generates a compelling narrative that may be fictive, yet it’s explanatory, engaging, and, dare I say, fun for the lay reader. Elements of writing that may not be non-fiction in the strictest sense can fulfill the role of filling in gaps that are absent in the historical record but present within inductive leaps. It’s not lying or stretching the truth; it’s adding texture to a narrative that may be incomplete without the human element. We can use our creativity inductively to draw connections between tenuously linked phenomena.

Perhaps the most famous example is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s tremendous book A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812, for which Ulrich won the Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious award in the field of American history. In A Midwife’s Tale, Ulrich examined the daily life of midwife Martha Ballard as documented in Ballard’s diary. What had been dismissed by other historians as “repetitive and ordinary” was carefully and vividly dissected by Ulrich until a rich, powerful, and emotional narrative emerged. Combined with other primary sources, Ulrich creatively and distinctly revealed both the crucial role played by Ballard in her community as well as the socioeconomic role of women writ large in American history. According to Ulrich, “When I finally was able to connect Martha's work to her world, I could begin to create stories.” Other historians have used creative re-imaginations of marginalized historical actors to great effect, like Walter Johnson with American slaves and Carlo Ginzburg with the Inquisition.

This is where non-fiction writing can resemble art, and beautifully rich narratives can be elucidated by expert writers. Expertise is not innate; it is learned and practiced.

Develop and channel creative energy

For me, writing fiction is a way to tap into creativity, something that many grad students might feel is being stifled by the rigors of academia. But creative thinking is a learned skill, something that has to be honed over time and made habitual. More importantly, creativity will help you solve complex problems in your research, approaching them from inventive angles or applying novel methodologies. As Katy Meyers has argued, creativity has been squeezed out of students during their standard education, and when creativity is most needed, many students have found they are unable to employ it. Therefore, developing creativity can lead to honing a requisite research skill, not simply adding another tool to your intellectual toolbox.

Even the mechanics of writing fiction can help grad students with their research. Professor Patrick Dunleavy, author of Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Dissertation or Thesis, has suggested storyboarding a research project before starting. Novelists and filmmakers use storyboards to envision the entirety of a project, work out problems before production, and estimate the cost and time needed to complete the project. Practicing storyboarding with creative fiction can directly translate to finishing a large research project by employing creative strategies to addressing complications. Taking a nascent idea and developing its beginning, middle, and end mirrors the way that novels and films come to fruition. When you creatively visualize the totality of a project, you may see new approaches you need to take in order to finish it.

Perhaps you’ll sit down a write a few short stories, or a novella, or a play, or maybe even start an epic fantasy series. What’s important is that you take some time to experiment with an alternate genre of writing from what you’re used to, and when you return to your research project, maybe you will have picked up a new source of creativity.