One thing many students of creative writing seem to think, at least when they first begin, is that research is not part of the creative writing process. Somehow, all information about everything is supposed to reside in our bowling ball-sized heads, and thus, all writing just spews forth from the mind. One of the things that’s great about teaching creative writing is that I get that remove some of that weight from their shoulders. They do not have to make up facts about how people made clothes in 18th century South Carolina; they can actually look that up.
Plus, not only do we have the space to research, we aren’t confined to research through “traditional, academic methods” (pardon me while I clear the stuffiness from my throat). Instead, we can do hands-on research. We can interview people and visit places. We can take tours and even – gasp! – watch TV as part of our writing process. It’s really rather glorious.
Yesterday, my students and I discussed David James Duncan‘s essay “Cherish This Ecstasy,” where he discusses birds – a falcon that has sex with a hat, Vaux’s swifts that roost in his stove one night, Hungarian partridges that plummet head-first into snow to get warm – as the way he came to feel loved, even as his marriage was falling apart. Sometimes my students think he just “knew all this stuff” about birds before he wrote, but I really enjoy speculating with them about how he might have come up with the essay. Did he read about the falcon-sex hat and then begin to see other weird bird-sex things? Did he start feeling like birds were all around him and loved that feeling? Did a friend tell him the story about the patridges and that sent him soliciting other bird stories? What kind of research might he have done?
Essayist Lia Purpura once told my creative writing students about how she’d wanted to know what an autopsy was like, and so she called a medical examiner and asked if she could watch. She was granted permission, and the experience turned into her essay “Autopsy Report.” I encourage students to think of topics like this that get their attention and then brainstorm how they can find out more about the topic.
For folks who are so used to just “googling” or looking it up in a book, this idea of research as a full-bodied, out of the desk chair experience can be quite exciting. I know it is for me. I love learning new things, and while I love to read to do that, there’s nothing really better than experience to spark me into writing.
So here’s to birds in snow and cadavers in cold storage. The muses of our work.