April 6, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Kirsten Voris
When I first decided to write a book about a vaudeville-era stage psychic, my research skills included visiting archives, amassing details, and wishful thinking. Years later, I’m still no professional, but I’ve earned the right to call myself an amateur pain in the rear. I had a few things going for me before I started:
I love making lists.
I love archives.
I love details.
I never tire of digging up new information.
I’m not a researcher.
I’m conflict avoidant.
I’m sure I’m disturbing you.
And, I never tire of digging up new information.
Curiosity is good. That’s how stuff gets found. One more archive, I might think, then I’ll stop. Only, I can’t stop. And I don’t want to. Because the next step is synthesis. (Actual writing!) And if you never tire of digging, there’s a lot of material. In my case, archival.
I heart archives. Apart from the librarian who will ask me to open my bag and prove I’m pen-less, I don’t have to talk. If other people show up, they will be quiet people. If they’re not, they get busted.
In the early 2000s, when I began delving, my psychic was long gone and her contemporaries were old. Possibly deceased. Yes, I thought. They’re deceased.
A few years in, I was cornered at the registration desk of a magic conference. I was presenting, and this magician’s enthusiasm for my topic alarmed me. It was familiar. It was like mine.
As I signed in, he grilled me. Had I consulted the index of births and deaths, phone books, census records, court documents, newspapers? The Ask Alexander database?
Had I found the kids? The stepkids? Descendants of pallbearers and housekeepers? Had I sent letters to the current occupants of the last known residence? Had I interviewed anyone?
As the dust settled on this second set of questions, I knew myself. I was a microfilm jockey in a sea of prestidigitators. Folks who would be rolling quarters over their knuckles at dinner that night, right up until the salad arrived. They never quit refining. They’re relentless. I’m not. I’ll quit digging as soon as I have to talk to someone.
In fact, I’d found the kids. And the stepkids. And couldn’t make myself contact them.
I had composed a sample letter in my head. Hello, it began. I am a person you’ve never heard of with no credentials. Let’s just call me a researcher. I wanted to ask a few questions about your late stepmother. The one who totaled your parents’ marriage.
My new friend, I would learn, takes it a step further. He asks whether there are publicity photos, scrap books, personal letters, props. A trunk in the attic?
It sounded crass. Like trying to hook someone on a pyramid scheme. I didn’t think I could do it.
He got me to do it. By exerting the same gentle pressure he applies to survivors of show-business families who don’t want to talk to him. (And if you’re writing a book about early radio mentalism, you’ll need what he’s dug up.) He wore me down. And normalized the practice of being a pain in the rear.
Five suggestions I profited from:
- Assume family members want to hear from you. Most will be curious about why you’re so interested. Others will refuse to talk to you. Or take you seriously. Or be polite. Just like in real life.
- Own your title. A researcher is someone who researches. That, my friend, is you.
- Send letters. Better yet, make phone calls. Consider the age of people you hope to contact. Not everyone can comfortably type or text or hold a pencil. The phone is your best bet. Phoning is scary. Decide how you will reward yourself.
- Persist. If a letter is rejected or goes unanswered wait, then send another when you have something to share, like information you found or a relevant article you’ve published. Repeat this process until you’re asked to stop.
- Befriend other researchers. Especially those mining the same ground. These are the folks who will call your obsession normal and propel you onward with love and goodwill when you feel defensive about the way you’re spending your time. If I could go back and do one thing differently, I would drop my fear of being scooped and collaborate more generously.
Overcoming my fear of contacting people came down to attitude and approach. In the end, the strangers I called shared scrapbooks and photos and some of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. I’ve absorbed more drama and gossip than one book can hold. And one happy day, a woman I had interviewed wrote to say she wanted to live out the rest of her life without ever hearing from me again. At last, I was too much! I’d graduated to close up magic and survived my first coin drop.
Sometimes, I actually kind of love talking to people.
But not in archives.
Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.