On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

May 11, 2018 § 6 Comments

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By 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.

zz coffeltWhich 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 BooksHippocampus, 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.

AWP 2012 — The Hipster Genre and The Inside Joke

March 9, 2012 § 18 Comments

By Paul Haney

Chicago 2012 was my first AWP, and as such, by week’s end, I was pooped. All those panels, all them booths, all that cold Chicago out there to mess around in. But as one who check-boxed all the nonfiction-themed panels on the schedule, I had one more to attend in the last slot on Saturday evening: “Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms, or a Form of Collapse.” It turned out to be the most contentious panel of the week.

My girlfriend, though professedly not a writer (I would argue, Who isn’t?), came with me to the panel as it fit in our schedule between seeing the jellyfish at the Shedd aquarium and meeting friends for dinner over a Chicago deep dish pizza. As the discussion got underway, she slouched down and stared at the laces on her boots. I sat up and got out my notebook.

Wendy Rawlings posed the issue for the panel, a certain “pedagogical vacuum” she had found between narrative nonfiction and the lyric essay in which she struggled to articulate and define for her students the rules and allowances for truth, fact, and art within that spectrum.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius addressed the matter first, speaking at length about Virginia Woolf’s wandering, narrative “I,” and the slipperiness caused by allowing writers to stretch the truth, play with details, and force the reader to discern fact from fantasy. Memory is the essential self, Bartkevicius seemed to say, and the essay should mirror actual memory, like Woolf’s essays, and not fabricate details. It’s the image of the mind we’re after, not perfect prose and narrative arc.

After Bartkevicius’ scholarly approach, Steven Church drew a humorous analogy between the lyric essay, a genre that has come to be defined as a compromise between poetry and prose, both lyric and narrative, and the contemporary stereotype of the hipster. The lyric essay’s cooler than everyone, above reproach because it knows more than everybody else, like an inside joke. According to Church, at its worst, the lyric essay “dances in sequined pants” without having anything to say. At its best, it preferences subjective perception over collective, and respects the “writer-reader relationship that makes nonfiction special.”

I thought Church was forceful and funny. My girlfriend studied her fingernails.

Next Colin Rafferty spoke from personal experience as the first faculty ever hired as an essayist at the University of Mary Washington. Rafferty said that nonfiction is becoming more prevalent in creative writing departments across the country, and with the essay grabbing a place in the university, nonfictionists are having to grapple over a definition of who they are and what exactly their genre does. This is a good and necessary thing, he said. He also asserted that once an essay privileges fact and truth, it can get as lyrical as the author would like.

There seemed to be an implicit reference in Rafferty’s concluding remarks to the recent hubbub over John D’Agata’s blatant dismissal of absolute fact. Earlier, Bartkevicius had ostensibly thrown D’Agata with James Frey in the bucket of writers who fib and betray.

The final speaker, Ned Stuckey-French, directed his comments straight at D’Agata in a “Dear John letter.” “It’s over, John,” he repeated, deadpan, and used the form and tone to admonish D’Agata’s fact-stretching, adherence to the label “creative nonfiction” (“‘creative’ as opposed to what,” Stuckey-French asked, “‘destructive’”?), and deracination of essays from their original context in anthologies without acknowledging the interpretative effects of such an act. The audience chuckled throughout. My girlfriend crossed her arms.

And then it happened. In the Q&A, the first questioner spoke with such vehemence and conviction in defense of John D’Agata that the room broke into a free-for-all, the panelists scrambled to shield themselves from AWP field guides-turned-projectiles, and audience members dove into the fracas in the name of nonfiction.

Okay, so it wasn’t that intense.

But the questioner did say that to put D’Agata in the same sentence with James Frey was inane and ingenuous because the book itself, About a Mountain, points out every instance of fudging with the facts in a special notes section in the back. She accused the panel at hand, as well as all the other panels that weekend who took up the D’Agata controversy, of character assassination, of making the issue personal, of seeking to ruin a man’s reputation because of some set of arbitrary, nebulous, incipient, prescriptive rules of composition. When she finished making her objection, the questioner received a few smatters of applause from around the room.

It was a question that ended with a period.

And was followed by an awkward silence. The panel leaned forward on their elbows.

“Is there a question?” Rawlings said.

Rafferty was the first to respond and attempted an informative, cogent answer that would also pacify tempers. When he was done, others audience members from the D’Agata camp demanded more answers.

“Look,” Stuckey-French said, pulling the microphone close. “I’m not really breaking up with John D’Agata.” It seemed to me that the rhetorical moves made in the panel’s presentations—Bartkevicius’ bucket of betrayal; Stuckey-French’s breakup letter—hit a sore spot that had reached its pain threshold. But I wondered, wasn’t the panel somewhat playing devil’s advocate? Weren’t they using D’Agata not as a punching bag, but as a learning moment, a launching pad for an important discussion in a nascent genre?

As we left, I looked to my girlfriend for answers. “What’d you think?”

“It was like a giant inside joke I wasn’t let in on.”

“What about the disagreement at the end?”

“I don’t know why people care so much.”

Maybe that’s the question we should be asking.

Paul Haney is soon to receive his Master’s in Literature from Florida State University. His has a nonfiction piece forthcoming in Redividerand shudders to think of the angry horde of fact checkers waiting to dismantle it. He is originally from Orlando

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