AWP 2014: Effective Research Strategies in Creative Nonfiction

March 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

notesScott Russell Morris reports on the panel, “Just the Facts: Effective Research Strategies in Creative Nonfiction”:

The panel, which was run as a Q&A, began with the presenters sharing their research specialties, which included homicides, dance halls, health care, Iceland, and oil fields, to name just a few.  Many of the questions were from Gail Folkins, the moderator, but others were from the audience.

How would you describe your research styles?

Kurt Caswell said that he is “a writer who tries to be careful,” always making sure he has the correct information, one who tries to get to the “center” of the source. Toni Jensen, on the other hand, comes at nonfiction research in a roundabout way: she is often doing research for the fiction she writes about the American West, and but uses that research to write nonfiction as well, focusing on touring facilities and digging into archives. Lee Gutkind called himself an “immersionist” who tries to experience the life of the subjects and come away with questions, which then lead him to stories. It is, according to him, all about the people and the stories. Jill Patterson and Gail Folkins also focus on people. Jill, who researches homicides, describes “eating and folding laundry” with the families of the convicted, hanging out “in the field” so that she builds relationships with the people whose stories she tells. Gail, who studies dance halls in Texas, tells of volunteering at the door or backstage during concerts, being the first to get there and the last to leave.

What are some of the constraints of research, and how do you overcome them?

Kurt pointed out, as everyone was obviously thinking, that the two big constraints are time and money. But, he said, the real issue is “largely a people issue.” If you speak to the right people, they will connect you to the people with the stories. “If you’re willing to work at it, you can get to the point,” he said. However, there is still the issue of money. Jill and Joni both encouraged writers to apply for grants inside the field of study, not just grants to artists and writers. Noting the difficultly of traveling, Lee recommended that writers “think local…It’s easier when your subject is two miles rather than two-thousand miles away.” Every community has stories the whole world will find interesting, he said.

Once you have an idea for a story, how do you find the first source?

Jill recommended looking to the local university. Many universities have specialists in local events or industries who have done their own research, so starting there will be a good place for contacts. Toni also mentioned hanging out at the bars where the people she wanted to interview hung out—make friends with the barkeeper and you’ll know when everyone is coming and going. Essentially: get in touch with the people who know people, who ever that is.

How do you get documents?

To be brief: courthouses. For nearly everything the cops, the courts, or the government has done on most of what you’re researching, you can get copies at the courthouse where it happened. The records are inexpensive, though you will often pay for copies by the page, so things can add up.

What happens when you hit a dead end? How do you even know that has happened?

Jill’s advice was simple (and cheeky): just walk away. But Curt and Lee both reminded us that sometimes the search for answers is the story itself. Where the dead ends are is often as interesting a story as you might find anywhere, as is the writer’s own search for answers. But Joni reminded us of what had been said earlier, that the best way to get the stories is by talking with people. If you think you have a dead end, talk a little bit longer. It may take a year or more, but eventually, people open up.

How do you interview people?

There was lots of advice here, most of which focused on remembering that the people you are talking to are not a story. They are people with lives. Sometimes the information isn’t something they will want to share with just anyone. Gail said that if she was going to get anywhere, she would have to know a lot about the situation first. Do your homework before the interview. Be sure to know what questions to ask, but also be willing to follow tangents, as there are often good stories there. Jill echoed that idea, noting that her clients will often tell the same stories repeatedly, stories she called the “myths of the self.” Pay close attention to these repeated stories and what topics got you to them. On the other hand, Lee recommended not worrying too much about questions, but instead just focusing on being a good listener, one who is encouraging, even with silences. The subject will often be more comfortable if they tell you what they want to say first, then you can follow up on interesting stories from there. He also recommended interviewing other people first: interview the family, coworkers, secretaries, etc, of the subject first. This, he said, gets them nervous and more keen to make sure their side of the story gets heard, but the other interviews also allow you to ask more significant questions. In a similar vein, Curt recommended “playing dumb,” asking the same question in different ways so that they have to explain the situation several times. Often, new approaches will reveal new material.

Perhaps the most important question of the panel was about ethics of writing other people’s stories.

Toni reminded us that we need to be humane in our approach. Be against an issue, she said, never against a person. Often, it is just their job. Gail told us to balance inclusion and exclusion, writing with the truth in mind, but still respecting relationships. Lee pointed out that the a large portion of the Creative Nonfiction budget  goes to fact checking, because writers owe it to their readers and subjects to be accurate.

Scott Russell Morris has an MFA from Brigham Young University and is pursuing a PhD in English Literature from Texas Tech University. His nonfiction has previously appeared in Brevity, SLAB, Blue Lyra Review, Stone Voices, end elsewhere. He is putting the final touches on an essay collection called Everything I Know About Squirrels.

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