“Inadvertent Research”

What’s the main ingredient we bring to the blank page, whether we know we’re bringing it or not?

Saying any piece of writing ‘transcends its genre’ is an efficient way to grit the teeth of any genre writer. However, from the perspective of a genre writer who happens to be learning transcendental meditation (hello), transcending stops being about moving above or beyond. It becomes a journey in (and, simultaneously, out). As a result, I’m giving myself permission to think exactly that about ‘A Crash Course in Black Holes’, Aliya Whiteley’s essay in Writing the Future edited by Writers’ Gym series one guest Dan Coxon. I loved this deeply thoughtful, friendly conversation with and love-letter to the writing process. It speaks not only to the direct subject matter of science fiction writing and being a science fiction writer but of the relationship between research and writing – no matter what our subject, or our idea of what research means for us.

“Am I writing a novel? Or am I, in fact, watching Bargain Hunt?” Novelist Katharine Orton’s (artist formerly known as) Twitter page, c. 2021

As much as we might doubt ourselves as we stare out of the window, at/through the TV or computer screen, research can be everything, even and especially when it’s not relevant to the current project: “Life is research,” Aliya reminds us. “Just being alive is research. This includes… eating, drinking and sleeping, and watching television, and sitting at the bottom of the shower in a bad mood. It’s probably not relevant for the thing you’re writing now… Let’s call it inadvertent, long-distance, secondary research.” It can be just as much of an environment for self-doubt when it’s more obviously research, too. When does period research become procrastination? When does reading what everyone else has said about what you want to talk about become a distorting mirror for our own view of the worthiness or sanity of what we are trying to create ourselves?

Research is part of most of our processes, which is what makes authorial google histories so worrying and apt for hilarity/misconstruction. This week I’ve asked a GP about how best to arrange an accidental death for a character (N.B. I did NOT use an NHS appointment for this: the GP in question is my cousin). More horrifically still, I heard myself commenting on how marvellously convenient her answer was.

Katharine’s tweet and Aliya’s essay both offered me reassurance around the most important thing for a creative writer to know: that self-esteem, or lack of it, is the main ingredient; the key thing we bring to the blank page. Which is absolutely fine, as long as we acknowledge this and its intrinsic dangers, that research (particularly interesting, enjoyable research which all research is fairly likely to become when we’re working on subjects we are drawn to) is fuel and not destination, that it’s only as useful if we keep coming back from it to pour into the next blank page.

“At some point the idea and the information will come together to the moment where writing can start. Recognising that point, and acting upon it, is difficult. But I always feel better once I sop procrastinating and get on with it.” – Aliya Whiteley

Not waiting for our feelings or the doubts to resolve, but providing our feelings with evidence of facts in the world, is the way through this: showing-not-telling ourselves that whatever undermines our confidence does not, in fact, have more reality than what we put into the world does. There is nothing more real than coming back to the blank page and daring to fill it. Hence, as Aliya says, “Finishing that story, whether it’s good or bad, publishable or awful, is its own form of research for the next story.” And, while all research is absolutely fuel, we’re the ones who channel it into a unique journey:

“All research is subjective… If we all read the same sources at the same time… we’d come away with various pieces of information that have resonated, connected, affected us differently. I think maybe that’s where inspiration lives.” – Aliya Whiteley