Practical Notes: Research Statements for Creative Writers–Julija Šukys

Welcome to a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world, from writing craft papers to revising craft papers, to writing other materials that might be valuable on the job market. image

A standard application for an academic position (i.e., a professorship) includes a cover letter, CV, letters of recommendation, writing sample, teaching statement, and research statement. In my experience, of all these materials, the research statement causes the most alarm and confusion among creative writers. It may go against your instincts or feel awkward, but the sooner you can get your head around the idea of framing your creative work as research the better. “But my poems/novel/lyric essays aren’t research!” Yes, yes. I hear you. I get it. Still, work with me. For these purposes, let’s agree to go with the flow and to call creative work “research.” I promise you: nothing good comes of trying to explain to a search committee that its categories and criteria for a search are wrong.

So now that that’s out of the way…

Before you start working on your Research Statement proper, I suggest you create two lists (A & B) that will act as building blocks for the research statement as a whole.

LIST A: Research Themes. Make a list of the big ideas that your research grapples with. Three to five themes should suffice. I’m serious. Write them down.

The first first step in figuring out how you can frame your creative work as research is to distill (and make a list of) the ideas or big questions that you deal with in your work. Does your work examine or imagine a specific time period or culture? Does it engage with the notion of trauma, addiction, abuse, fidelity, disability? All of these are themes of research, as are questions of gender, sexuality, travel, loss, and love. Even craft is a form of research. Grappling with metaphor, character, voice, place, or chronology are all serious intellectual endeavors. The trick now is to make sure you frame these processes in terms that make sense both to scholars and fellow writers who make up academic search committees.

LIST B: Active terms to describe your research. Instead of writing “my essay is…,” ask yourself what your text does and use an appropriate verb to reflect that. Make a list of these verbs. I’m not joking.

This list of verbs should render your work alive, active, and help show its inquisitive aspects. When writing your research statement, banish forms of “to be” as much as possible. Substitute a more vibrant verb instead. A text may, for example, examine, inquire, delve into, consider, ask, compare and contrast, bear witness, study, contemplate, weigh, reckon with, regard, imagine, and so on. Remember to think about aspects of craft in these terms as well.

Here’s what I mean: I’ve taken a few canonical CNF texts as examples and teased out what their research themes could be for such a statement.

Jo Ann Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter.”

Research themes: mass shootings, gun culture, immigration, trauma, and alienation.

Craft in research terms: The essay dives deep into astronomical metaphors and experiments with using images borrowed from physics to illuminate the human condition.

Eula Biss’s, “Time and Distance Overcome.”

Research themes: lynching of African Americans, race relations in America, racism, and the history of tele-communications.

Craft in research terms: The essay examines the notion of the accident in research and how paths of knowledge lead to unexpected discoveries. It also grapples with the problem of how to regard and bear witness to unspeakable traumas of the past.

Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That.”

Research themes: 1960s New York literary culture, marriage, displacement and return, second-wave feminism.

Craft in research terms: The essay grapples with the challenge of place-writing and of making New York City itself a character.

 Breaking Down the Research Statement

My research statements generally consist of six parts (NB: this six-part structure is also good to use for grant and fellowship proposals). The six parts include: Past Work, Past Reception & Contribution, Current Projects, Methodology, Future Contributions, and Contintuity.

1) Past Work. In my case, I describe each of my books in a single paragraph and then I switch to essays in a second paragraph. Audio and other kinds of work, like print interviews, get a third paragraph. You will, of course, tailor this to your own body of work. More junior writers might stick to one or two paragraphs rather than three (don’t panic if you don’t have a book paragraph yet; I’m just trying to be as concrete as possible here by using my own statement as an example). Use your judgment and remember to describe your work actively, by telling the committee what it does. This is where your list of active verbs (examine, inquire, delve, consider, ask,  compare and contrast, bear witness, study, contemplate, weigh, reckon with, regard, imagine) will come in handy. Yes, I realize I’m repeating myself.

2) Past Reception & Contributions. This is the part where you talk about how your past work has been received and what kinds of contributions it has made. If your work has earned positive or even exceptional reviews, won prizes, or been featured prominently somewhere, then this is the time and place to describe that. If your work is or has been taught in a class, used as a pedagogical example, or included in a textbook or anthology, then be sure to highlight that here. You may talk about lectures, readings, and interviews you’ve given, since the fact that someone has bothered to talk to you means that you’ve had some kind of influence, and influence equals a contribution. If you’ve won arts or research grants in the past or taken part in residencies for past projects, then say so. The goal here is to show that your work is reaching readers and that it has a place in the literary culture, even if it’s in one particular corner of that culture. It doesn’t matter if your books/essays have never made you a cent (no need to point that out). Even small prizes or grants should be included in this section. Collect what you’ve done in one paragraph and make a case that you’re a writer whose work matters and is worth supporting.

3) Current Projects. Now that you’ve painted a picture of where you’ve been, it’s time to move to the present. Describe your current project briefly and succinctly. Again, I suggest using your list of active verbs to describe what your project does and will do.  Don’t get too specific to avoid getting lost in the details. Concentrate on the big ideas behind your project and on its intellectual merits. Paint your picture with broad, strong strokes and be really clear about why this project matters and to whom it will matter. If you’ve already secured travel funds, research or arts grants, be sure to mention that here, no matter how small those grants may be!

Describe what work you’ve already done: research you’ve completed, chapters you’ve drafted or pieces of the project you’ve published. Map out what remains to be done and give a general timeline of how long the rest of the project will take to complete. Be realistic about your timelines.

4) Methodology. This can be a tough category for creatives but it’s a doable one. Think about how you go about your work and what is involved in your creative process. Name each part of your process and describe what you do. Again, use your list of active verbs, but this time, use the verbs to describe what you do rather than what your work does.

Creative methodologies might include:

  • Place-based research (travel)
  • Oral history (interviews)
  • Archival research (this can include private collections like your mother’s old diaries)
  • Bibliographical research (reading and library work)
  • Observation (people or animal or nature watching)
  • Immersion (you know what this is)
  • Cultural critique (experiencing and commenting on plays, music, films, politics, television, and so on)

5) Future Contributions. This can feel like the  most tenuous part of the statement. Here the goal is to predict what kind of contribution the current/new project will make to knowledge, to writing, and to ongoing conversations.

This section is easier to write if you base it on past experience. Ask yourself: who reads your work now and who is likely to read the new work? Will it interest your usual readers again and will it be able to attract new ones?

Your research themes should come in handy here. If you’ve successfully identified these, then you should also be able to identify a community of readers whom your work will interest. For example: perhaps your book will interest students and scholars of disability studies, feminism, survivors of domestic violence, or American history buffs. The most important thing is to make a case that there’s a community out there to receive your work. If you can identify that community even in the broadest terms (one of my standard communities is “library lovers”), then you’re on the right track.

6) Continuity. This has always been the least intuitive section for me but for some reason, the question of the relationship between past and future work seems to be important to granting agencies and search committees. If you look frazzled or unfocussed, then scholars in particular tend to grow skeptical (remember that there are often hardcore scholars as well as creatives on hiring committees). So, even if (or especially if) your work is varied and multi-genred, take the time to make a case for a through-line and a logical progression. Connections that seem obvious to you may not be obvious to a search committee, so be sure to help them see these more clearly.

The question to address head-on in the last section of your research statement is this: How does the current project build on your past work or grow out of past work? The answer may be thematic, but it can also be methodological or formal.

Final thoughts:

Give yourself lots of time to edit and re-edit your research statement. Good job applications take time. Write your research statements in the first person and in a voice that feels natural to you. Be confident but not cocky. Don’t overstate your case by declaring that you’re writing the most important book of all time but don’t sell yourself short either. The more concrete you can be, both about what you’ve done and what you plan to do, the better. Again, I swear, those first two lists are key… Concreteness and confidence are how you build faith and interest in your work.

Good luck! Happy writing.

Julija Šukys is an associate professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri and a Senior Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile). Her essay “There Be Monsters” appears as Notable in Best American Essays 2018.

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