On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”
May 11, 2018 § 6 Comments
By Allison Coffelt
“Excuse me. Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone. “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge. “Research.”
This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential. I love research. I love research so, so much. Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions. A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification? Research. A trip to the museum? Research. A rock concert? Sure; that’s research. I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research. Though I do stop short of labeling all as such: For me, anything can be research, but not everything is. To be clear: everything is fair game. All the notebooks, lived experiences, dialogue. But I choose not to call everything research because I fear confusing it with awake-ness, with just learning the plant names to learn them, and to better notice and articulate to a friend the delight of the pawpaws. Instead, I use the term “research” when I need that little kick to get going. When I know I want to do something or go somewhere, but for whatever reason, I’m holding myself back. Research becomes, for me, a license to be the most curious version of myself.
“I’m arguing for a rambling path,” Joni Tevis said in our panel, The Dividing Line: Blending Research in Personal Narratives at the 2018 Annual Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Is the rambling path different than the rabbit hole? I’m not sure. One of the riddles that arose in our conversation was, how do you know when it’s enough? In the midst of researching, it can be hard to recognize if the deep dive is avoidance of writing and/or if it’s productive. (Sometimes it’s “yes and.”) This is when Joni’s advocacy comes in handy – granting permission, even encouraging the rambling path. I’d add, too, that learning to discern between seeking distraction and seeking information involves knowing oneself: how does the mind feel when it’s longing for interruption? Is that the sensation I’m chasing right now, as I open yet another tab on my browser? Put another way: am I combing through microfiche or scouring YouTube because I’m avoiding listening to the rhythm of a sentence? If the answer is yes, then perhaps it’s time for a gentle redirection back to the page. If the answer is yes and (I need to know), it’s harder to say. But practicing asking the question has felt helpful to me over the years of writing.
That concept of “enough” can feel so tricky. What if the question about research isn’t, “when do I know I have enough?” but “When do I think I have enough to start?” Once I begin writing, I continue to discover gaps. And so, research becomes a circular dance: write, think, go beyond the self, think, write, shape better questions, go beyond the self. I had a professor in graduate school who had advice for seminar papers that I think extends to other realms: Start before you think you’re ready.
Which brings us to fear. In our AWP panel, I noticed a particular kind of fear laced into the Q&A: a fear of theft. I’m scared of this, too – we’ve all heard the horror stories of plagiarism that end in public humiliation and shame. How do you keep track? someone asked. How do you make sure your sources, especially online sources, don’t disappear? Jon Pineda, the panel organizer, talked about how he has his students create a blog over the course of the semester where they collect all of the articles and sources. I like this idea because it allows you to capture multimedia in a notebook-of-sorts. Personally, I’ve found Scrivener’s tools to be crucial as I wrote my first book – Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Road Trip Through Haiti – because I could store photos, videos, audio files, photocopies of notes, and save caches of websites (see photo to the left) lest the sites themselves hange or disappear.
Regardless of the tool, one way to approach this fear seems to be organization. I learned this most acutely in an audio storytelling workshop: there are concrete steps to save the individual files, and then there are guiding principles for working with multiple tracks, creating banks of sound, and more. But ultimately, you have to have everything saved and you have to know where everything is (or at least, be able to find it). You can design a system that serves you.
One of the best systems, of course, being the library. On our panel, Colin Rafferty shared the magic of the Federal Depository Library Program, which distributes Government Printing Office documents to every Regional Depository Library – and the GPO prints a lot of documents. (It’s the largest publisher in the world.) These Regional Depository Libraries include, as Colin said, “any land-grant college or university, any federal agency library, any accredited law school, and the highest appellate court in your state. Best of all, depository libraries are open to the public, even when housed at a private institution.” What’s in depository libraries? The Catalog of US Government Publications, for one, which is chalk-full of strange facts and overlooked histories, waiting to be read.
Research is fraught – and so is writing. They can both be a discovery process for the writer. They’re both practices that can embolden, inform, ensnare, and uncover. We might not always like what we find, but for me, it’s always worth the search.
Allison Coffelt lives and writes in Columbia, Missouri. Her first book, Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Road Trip Through Haiti, explores a decade-long interest in Haiti and interrogates the line between here and there. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hippocampus, the Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. She serves as the Education & Outreach Director and podcast host for True/False, a nonfiction film festival. You can find more about her work at allisoncoffelt.com.