I’m pleased to have my student, Marty Ross-Dolen, as a guest blogger this week. After Marty’s entry concerning research in creative nonfiction, I’ll add a writing exercise, but now, here’s Marty:
I would like to thank Lee for this opportunity to act as a guest contributor to his blog. I offered to write this week because I am both fascinated by this topic of research as it applies to the genre of creative nonfiction and because I love taking part in Lee’s class in the real world so much that I figured the virtual classroom would extend the discussion longer, which I easily welcome.
Philip Gerard, in his article entitled “The Art of Creative Research” published in the October/November 2006 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, defines research as “a habit, an attitude of open-minded alertness, a way of being in the world, or being alert for knowledge in any form – knowledge defined as some clue I didn’t have before about how the world works.” He continues, “Research takes you the writer out of yourself, frees you for a time from paralyzing self-absorption, while offering endless fascinating subjects,” and highlights the “stories [that are] buried under our feet, painted over on the facades of our cities and towns, silenced under the barrage of everyday noise, forgotten or lost by death, erased from the public memory, but the writer can find them.”
As a curious person by nature, I must admit that the idea of research both excites and overwhelms me. What I know of the world of academic research from my days in high school, college, and medical school is that information is vast, endless, and not always easy to access, and we as writers are responsible to it – we need to be thorough, follow leads, exhaust options, defer to it, and refer to it, always, with the proper references and quotes. I never found much joy in writing the technical, familiar “research paper,” so the end point of all the tedious work didn’t bring me a lot of personal satisfaction, only the notion that I had collected information and regurgitated it back onto the page for someone to read and, worse, grade.
Yet I find the activity of research for the purpose of gaining Gerard’s definition of knowledge to be addictive. In fact, a few weeks ago I was writing an essay for Lee’s workshop about my late grandparents and the changes that occurred in their marriage over the sixty years of their being together. I knew, because they told me, that they were both raised in Jewish families, had both grown up in the boroughs of New York City, met at a summer camp outside the city that was owned by my grandmother’s family, and had secretly eloped. But I didn’t know where in New York they had each lived (Had they grown up close to each other?), where the camp was located exactly, and what their roles were at the camp (Wasn’t my grandfather at dental school in Philadelphia at the time? Why was he at the camp?).
So, as Gerard suggests, I interviewed my father via email, quickly and while at the keyboard penning the essay, to see what he knew. He responded with confirmation that my grandfather was a counselor during the summer that he met my grandmother. He also sent a Wikipedia link to an article about a certain Camp Windsor, a 365-acre campground with a 13-acre lake, located in Starlight, PA, on the edge of the Poconos. The camp was a privately owned (by my great-grandparents) summer camp for Jewish kids which eventually became rundown and unused when it was bought by the B’nai B’rith organization in January, 1954. It has since enjoyed a rich history as an active meeting sight for youth leadership training as well as a summer camp for the B’nai B’rith organization.
With the name Camp Windsor and an address, I was able to explore Google to follow its distance from New York, pull up old postcards that showed photographs of the beautiful campsite, and even read oral histories of elderly people who went there as campers and held fond childhood memories of this magical place. I followed this search with some more time spent at one of my favorite websites, www.ancestry.com, and studied the 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses, finding the addresses of my grandparents’ family homes, reading their neighbors’ names, and imagining these immigrant families speaking in their native tongues huddled together in apartment buildings raising their children in this new world. My grandparents moved around a lot, but they never lived in the same spot at the same time. And, given the dates, my grandfather took a summer off of dental school to work at Camp Windsor, met my grandmother, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Mimi Schwartz, in her article “Research and Creative Nonfiction: Writing So the Seams Don’t Show” featured in the December, 2004 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, speaks about the difference between using research to write the creative nonfiction piece as opposed to the academic, journalistic piece. “Whereas utilitarian nonfiction tells us what we should know, creative nonfiction also lets us feel the knowing – not just intellectually, but in the gut.” She continues, “At its best, research enriches the text, making people, events, and their historic and cultural contexts come alive more fully, [and] at its worst, research interrupts the narrative flow and breaks down the voice, so that the writing sounds more like a textbook or news report than like creative nonfiction.” She goes on to speak about the importance of writing so “the seams of research don’t show,” allowing the reader to absorb a story enhanced by factual information, rather than have that same information forced into the reader’s bank of knowledge without a surrounding context that gives the material greater meaning.
In thinking about Schwartz’s message, it turns out that I didn’t offer too many details about my grandparents’ early years in my essay and only gave a short description of it, although I was able to give it a name and a location when I made reference to Camp Windsor in the piece. But my new knowledge informed me as a writer, and I felt like a different person as I wrote the essay – a more connected granddaughter with greater confidence in who my grandparents were as young people at a time when I didn’t even exist. Without the research, the piece would have felt more superficial to me, absent of depth from my new knowledge.
Finally, I would strongly recommend Gerard’s article to any writer who is daunted by the task of undertaking a large research project. He does a wonderful job of explaining the process, describes its “messy and surprising” nature, and suggests techniques, such as establishing a timeline, that can only help to compartmentalize what, in my case, is boxes and boxes of letters written by my (other) grandmother that sit in the corner of my office waiting for me to uncover and discover. Not all tedious and time-consuming activities reap as great a reward as that of researching a topic for the purpose of creating a better piece of writing, one that enriches the minds of both the writer and the reader alike.
The objective of this activity is to use research as a means of discovery, whether you’re writing about your own life, another person, a place, or an event.
(1) Write down everything you think you know about a person, a place, or an event. “This is the sort of person who would. . . . .” “This is a place where. . . .” This event occurred because. . . .” Act as if you know everything there is to know.
(2) Then do some research with the challenge of finding out something you didn’t know. Read newspaper reports, conduct interviews, look at photographs, poke around in the county courthouse records, visit a local or state historical society. Find something that makes you look at the person, place, or event from a different angle. Find something that opens the material up in a way you couldn’t have predicted.
(3) Create a passage that contains a moment of surprise, a moment where for the first time you knew something in a way you never knew it previously. If writing about a person, you might begin with the prompt, “Usually my father (or whomever you’re exploring). . . .” The idea here is to establish a baseline for the person by offering up what may be the prevalent aspect of his or her character as you recall it. You’re looking for habitual action. “Usually, my father checked the locks each night at bedtime and then tromped up the stairs, pausing at the top to tell my brother and me to pipe down and go to sleep.” Then continue by veering off from that baseline with the prompt, “Then one night (or day). . . .” You might say, for example, “Then one night, we didn’t hear him coming up the stairs. We waited and waited, but all we heard was the ticking of the grandfather clock on the landing. Finally, we crept out of our bedroom, looked through the stairway railing and saw our father kneeling on the floor below us, his hands clasped together in prayer.” You can do the same, of course, by using not memory but something discovered in research as I did with the Farm Bureau pamphlet and the photograph. You can also do the same for a place or an event. All you have to do is write about what you knew and then show us the information or artifact that turned your certainty on its ear.
Issues for Further Consideration:
It’s important that nonfiction writers know enough to get a piece of writing underway. They know what it was like to be a part of their family, for instance, or they know what it’s like to live in a particular town, or they know the facts of a specific event. It’s equally important for these writers to admit to themselves and to us that they don’t know everything, that there’s still much to be learned. Their research, then, as long as they’re open to such learning, can take them to interesting places that will complicate what they think and feel. If indeed the essay is a conversation between the various parts of the writer’s self as he or she attempts to come to some sort of meaning, then it’s absolutely crucial that the writer open him or herself to the various contradictions within that self as well as within others, and the places that they occupy. Research isn’t just fact gathering; it’s also a chance to discover something new and unanticipated in our responses to the world at large.