The Art of Creative Research: A Field Guide for Writers

The Art of Creative Research: A Field Guide for Writers

by Philip Gerard

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Overview

All writers conduct research. For some this means poring over records and combing, archives but for many creative writers research happens in the everyday world—when they scribble an observation on the subway, when they travel to get the feel for a city, or when they strike up a conversation with an interesting stranger.

The Art of Creative Research helps writers take this natural inclination to explore and observe and turn it into a workable—and enjoyable—research plan. It shows that research shouldn’t be seen as a dry, plodding aspect of writing. Instead, it’s an art that all writers can master, one that unearths surprises and fuels imagination. This lends authenticity to fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction.

Philip Gerard distills the process into fundamental questions: How do you conduct research? And what can you do with the information you gather? He covers both in-person research and work in archives and illustrates how the different types of research can be incorporated into stories, poems, and essays using examples from a wide range of writers in addition to those from his own projects. Throughout, Gerard brings knowledge from his seasoned background into play, drawing on his experiences as a reporter and a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His enthusiasm for adventure is infectious and will inspire writers to step away from the keyboard and into the world.
“Research can take you to that golden intersection where the personal meets the public, the private crosses the universal, where the best literature lives,” Gerard writes. With his masterly guidance, anyone can become an expert in artful investigation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226179940
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/23/2017
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 928,862
File size: 477 KB

About the Author

Philip Gerard is the author of four novels and six books of nonfiction, including Down the Wild Cape Fear: A River Journey through the Heart of North Carolina and The Patron Saint of Dreams. Gerard has also written numerous essays, short stories, public radio commentaries, and documentary television scripts. He teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Read an Excerpt

The Art of Creative Research

A Field Guide for Writers


By Philip Gerard

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 Philip Gerard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17994-0



CHAPTER 1

What Creative Research Is and How To Use It

The only things I can't write about are things that I am ignorant about, and that can always be changed. — Jacob Bateman, poet


Somewhere in our schooling, the idea of research got separated from our creative impulse. The kids who went into science do research. Maybe the historians and social scientists, too. And, of course, we all suffered through writing the required "research" paper in high school or college, in which we rounded up a specified number of reputable sources to splint the bones of our argument. And maybe journalists need to quote sources for the sake of credibility. But poets? Novelists? Personal essayists? Don't we just reach deep into the well of our imaginations and subconscious minds and produce art? Well, not exactly. Sometimes it's not enough simply to peer intently into your own soul. Sometimes you have to look out the window and see the world in all its complicated glory.

Think of Rita Dove's haunting book of poems, Thomas and Beulah, based on the lives of her African American grandparents. True, she achieves poetic power by imagining herself into their lives and by creating a living sense of them for us on the page. But to do that, she first had to discover all she could about them. Her declared intent was to remind us that these were real people, that their lives actually happened and were not just artistic constructs, that those lives contained both mystery and beauty along with hardship and suffering. Drawing from the actual known details of their lives would honor them. Think, too, of Carolyn Forché's mesmerizing book of poems, The Country Between Us, based on her experience on the ground during the time of the death squads and impending war in El Salvador, using poetry to try to understand the savagery she witnessed — and make it known to the world in a more powerful and lasting form than a daily news story.

Lavonne J. Adams had published scores of personally inspired poems before she wrote an enchanting cycle of poems about women on the Santa Fe Trail, Through the Glorieta Pass — a breakthrough experience that opened up a whole new dimension in her poetry. A simple assignment that she gave to her poetry class prodded her to venture so far afield in search of subject matter — an assignment designed to jar students away from writing only what was familiar and comfortable. She describes the experience this way:

Students of poetry, in the initial stages of the development of their craft, often write about their own experiences, which is an unarguable means of claiming authority in the writing. During a semester in which an intermediate workshop group shared an inordinate number of poems about romance-gone-awry, I pondered ways that I might encourage them to consider other topics. I wondered if shifting from subjects in which they had a strong emotional stake, to others that might be less personally inspired or traumatic, would allow these poets the distance that they need to focus on craft. My hypothesis was that they could then return to more personal poetry with greater insight and mastery over imagery, language, voice, and form.


Adams goes on, "The assignment was simple: choose a topic and research, write a poem about that topic. I began to write in this vein along with my students, delighted in the temporary liberation from my own life, or thoughts on life in general, within my poetry."

Like so many writers, Adams often finds that the surprises, even the disappointments, inherent in research often turn out to be the most inspiring moments. As she recounts:

Though I've found that traveling for the sake of research isn't a necessity, it can certainly enrich the experience for the author, as well as provide another level of engagement in the resulting creative work.

For example, while investigating the life and art of Georgia O'Keeffe, I was able to take a brief trip to Lake George, New York, where O'Keeffe and husband Alfred Stieglitz spent many summers. My first day there, I wandered the heart of the village, examining buildings, noting trees, the way light struck the lake and the surrounding mountains. I was frustrated when an unexpected afternoon storm swept across the lake, forcing me to take shelter. The next day, I visited a quaint brick building with spires, the former county courthouse, which now houses the Lake George Historical Association & Museum. There, I studied artifacts, read placards that described how quickly storms formed, the impressive number of resulting wrecks found lying at the bottom of the lake. When I saw a photograph of O'Keeffe's painting, Storm Cloud, Lake George, all of these elements combined to create a rendition of an ill-fated afternoon on the lake, when Stieglitz and O'Keeffe witnessed two boys drown. Adams gains an important grounding in such factual events, but ultimately the facts are only as interesting as the poet can make them, as she turns them into something larger and more meaningful, actions and images that resonate beyond the historical moment and even beyond the poem. She says, "But real authority is something more craft-oriented — the engagement of the poet with the subject matter."

When Stephen Crane wrote his novel The Red Badge of Courage, the Civil War was already settled history. His research took place at the feet of old veterans reminiscing on porches, and he listened carefully. When he wrote "The Open Boat," a short story, he was drawing on his own (unintended) research of being shipwrecked off Florida while en route to cover the rebellion in Cuba in 1896. In fact, he first wrote a reportorial nonfiction account of the incident and then shaped the raw material of fact into fiction. Mark Twain earned direct personal experience as a riverboat pilot, but he also closely — and intentionally — observed legendary river men like Horace Bixby to write Life on the Mississippi. Ted Conover rode the rails across America for a season to find out about the hobo life by living it for his book Rolling Nowhere, as complete an immersion experience as one can imagine. Later he reprised part of his hobo trip with his grown son, adding a new lens to the experience — and also using the journey to deepen his understanding of fatherhood.

It's not hard to come up with a pretty impressive list of writers of all genres who intentionally addressed public events, history, science, technology, and all manner of other subjects through research, including deliberately creating an experience to write from. The nonfiction writers are obvious: Tracy Kidder (The Soul of a New Machine), Joan Didion (Miami), Randall Kenan (Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century), Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams) — the start of a long and distinguished list. But on reflection, so are the novelists: Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde), Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars), Thomas Keneally (Schindler's List), Toni Morrison (Beloved) — another lengthening list.

As for poets, Emily Dickinson may have spent a lot of time indoors, but she was constantly in touch with the public figures of her day and deeply affected by the wholesale death of the Civil War, which she followed in the newspapers and from the personal accounts of friends, and which informs a large portion of her work with an unsettling darkness. Her contemporary Walt Whitman went south to witness the suffering for himself as a hospital worker, then wrote DrumTaps, a sequence of forty-three poems about the human side of the conflict — and more in Leaves of Grass. Documentary poetry has usually come to the fore during times of crisis and social unrest — such as the Great Depression, which gave us Archibald MacLeish's Land of the Free, featuring gritty photographs and poetic social comment; or the Harlem Renaissance, which gave us Langston Hughes, among many other poets addressing history and justice ("Remember / The days of bondage"). In more contemporary times, poets are resurrecting this documentary impulse, voicing deeply informed lines about race, genocide, war, justice, history, and contemporary culture. Not all write about deeply controversial social subjects. The late William Matthews, for instance, wrote passionately and knowingly about jazz.

So creative research is a matter of discovery of both the facts of the world that can be turned to artistic purpose and the method of finding out those facts, which in itself is a creative act. The journey of research is a drama all its own. The discoveries don't just fill in a few blanks to make a piece feel authentic; rather they often inspire the creation of a poem, an essay, or a story to somehow contain the discovery — a work of art not previously envisioned by the writer. The act of creative research begins the moment the writer decides to venture into the world beyond his or her own knowledge and experience.


The Actuality and the Zone of Noise

A nonfiction writer may be trying to pin down exactly the complicated facts of an event or life. A poet or novelist may be after authenticity — a reliable feel for a historical period or profession or place that he or she can then transform through invented characters or imagery.

Think of a true fact as a pencil point in the middle of a blank page. Now draw a small circle around that point. Inside this first circle are all the sources that directly touch what we'll call the "Actuality": physical evidence, eyewitness accounts, film, video, or audio of the event in real time; letters and diaries written by the people involved; police reports, maps, medical charts, or birth certificates written at or very close to the moment in question by people directly involved in the event — including, perhaps, you the author. Call these primary sources. The next circle out gets bigger and more encompassing. It contains reputable scholarship; contemporaneous journalism or other reporting; scientific studies; official investigations; trial transcripts; oral histories or memoirs created long after the fact; theories and analysis and informed speculation — all of them one big step removed from direct contact with the people and events of the actuality. These are secondary sources. Beyond that is what I call the Zone of Noise — the largest circle. This zone contains material far removed from direct contact: tradition, family lore, rumor, popular culture, blogs, opinion, and so on. It contains a measure of truth — but also distortion, falsehood, misinterpretation, irrelevancies, propaganda, and just plain fiction.

Your job as a researcher is to pass through the Zone of Noise — if need be tied to the mast like Odysseus, with wax stuffed in your ears to keep out the siren call of convenient drama. Then, guided by the clues and sources embedded in the second circle, you do your best to penetrate into the first circle of primary data. To get as close to the Actuality as you can. But the process is likely to be analogous to celestial navigation. The art of celestial navigation posits that, for every moment in time, you can plot your exact point on the Earth's surface, through the use of a sextant and some trigonometry. True enough, but rare is the navigator who, on the pitching deck of a small boat, using imperfect gifts and prone to mathematical errors, can pinpoint his or her position exactly. The best navigators, after long practice, using three stars or sun sights can locate their vessels inside a small triangle of ocean a few square miles in extent — a triangle that gets smaller and smaller with diligent practice.

The navigator approaches the knowledge of exact location and with practice gets closer and closer in that approach. But even when he or she is perfectly mathematically correct, it is unlikely that the navigator can be any more certain than at other times. That is, even when you have hit on the exact truth, you are unlikely to be certain if that is indeed the case. Still, if the navigator can steer a safe passage between the rocks and into a harbor, the calculation has proved accurate enough. So, too, the writer. With practice, you'll learn when to trust an eyewitness account and when it strikes you as fishy; you'll become adept at "triangulating," the way a navigator does — locating the truth somewhere in the intersection of several conflicting accounts; you will recognize that when a story seems too good to be true, it usually is. You will find yourself so close to the Actuality that you can feel it present in your words on the page and know you have approached as closely as you are ever likely to come to the literal truth of what was said or done. Then you can use that truth to your own artistic purpose.

Here a word about primary sources — the stuff in that first circle. Whether a source is primary depends to a large extent on how you are using it, what it is there to "prove." So a newspaper account written during the time of the event may contain many errors — may even be deliberately falsified, as were many journalistic accounts of Civil War battles, to either underestimate the losses of one side or overstate the losses of the other or to plump the reputation of a patron general. So they are not necessarily reliable primary sources for how many men died or were wounded — or even which side won the battle. But they stand as excellent primary sources for the way in which the war was reported, for the kind of language and sentiment that made its way into the public square.

Likewise, a trial transcript is essentially a secondary source as it relates to the events at the heart of the crime or lawsuit. The conflicting theories of the crime, as put forward by the lawyers on both sides, are essentially hypotheses to be tested by evidence, logic, and testimony. Both cannot be true at once. Remember, the whole American judicial process rests not on measures of certainty but on degrees of doubt. But embedded within the transcript are many primary sources — the exact charges or grievances; the applicable statutes; documents or physical evidence entered into the record; the testimony of eyewitnesses, experts, and the accused; facts independently verified regarding weather, location, and other matters of context. And here it's worth noting that the court reporter is perhaps the only person on the public payroll whose job it is to produce an exact, unabridged, truthful record of what is spoken by all parties in an encounter — in this case, in the courtroom. Even sustained objections and matters to be stricken from the record and disregarded by the jury remain in the official transcript, in case of review by an appellate court, which may need to take them into account in its deliberations.

So the transcript is a reliable primary source about the trial itself. But it remains one important step removed from the Actuality. You can know exactly what a witness said, but how do you know if he or she is telling the truth? Misremembering? Leaving out important details? Trial lawyers know this well. All the circumstantial evidence that's available can point to the "obvious" guilt of a completely innocent person. Different juries, reviewing the exact same evidence, can arrive at completely opposite decisions regarding guilt or innocence.

In the title essay of her book The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell proclaims a truth I have come to know well in writing about the Civil War and other American adventures: "American history is a quagmire, and the more one knows, the quaggier the mire gets." She is addressing the complicated nature of events and motives, as well as the sheer difficulty of knowing anything — even the seemingly most basic fact — for sure. Every new thing you find out tends to contradict the last thing you found out. Facts, evidence, clues — whatever you want to call them — are only as true as the story we use them to tell. And I use the term story loosely to mean the vital stuff of human behavior, whether it winds up in narrative or a lyric poem or an essay of ideas. A poem or fictional story is "true" if it offers insight into the way human beings actually behave, feel, think, aspire, dream. For the nonfiction writer, "true" also means truthful to the most verifiable version of events.

As writers we find our material in what we have experienced and in what we know. Sometimes the experience, as it happens by chance and circumstance, is enough to fuel a body of work. But often the writer deliberately seeks out experience and knowledge of some kind in order to enlarge the scope of his or her canvas. Sometimes the facts point to an obvious story. But more often there is a larger true thing, a Big Fact behind the Facts of the Case. It is this fact behind the facts that determines the meanings of all the other facts, creates a context for interpreting what our eyes are seeing and what our informants are telling us, and dictates the true syntax of a story.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Art of Creative Research by Philip Gerard. Copyright © 2017 Philip Gerard. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: On Fire for Research (an Homage to Larry Brown)

1 What Creative Research Is and How to Use It
2 Preparing a Research Plan
3 The Tools of the Trade
4 Archives: What They Are, Where They Are, and How Best to Use Them
5 It Must Be True— I Saw It on the Internet
6 The Archives of Memory, Imagination, and Personal Expertise
7 The Warm Art of the Interview
8 Walking the Ground and Handling the Thing Itself
9 Troubleshooting, Fact- Checking, and Emotional Cost
10 Breathing Life into Facts and Data on the Page

Afterword
Acknowledgments
Selected Sources for Quotations and Concepts Addressed in This Book
Index

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