June 21, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Helen Collins Sitler
Two summers ago chimney swifts nested in my chimney. I didn’t know a thing about swifts, except that they were there, and that I was intrigued enough to write about them.
As I sat surrounded by field guides to birds, I didn’t know what I needed to know so I took a lot of notes. Gradually, I noticed that field guides all use similar categories: description, voice, habitat, migration …. Those categories provided ideas for organizing and for section headings when I began to draft.
All the notetaking served to narrow/winnow relevant information. How exactly does the swift, with its stuttering flight pattern (description), manage to zoom into my chimney without conking itself unconscious or crash-landing on the damper? The answer to that question was useful. I was learning about swifts’ capacity for distance. Did you know they can sleep while they fly? Which is good, since their migration takes them thousands of miles from North America to Central and South America. Some information, like swifts’ chittering utterances (voice) turned out not to be relevant for the piece that emerged. Still, notes I never used cemented a deeper expertise, which gave me confidence in the writing.
I did a happy dance when a local ornithologist fact-checked a draft and reported back, “You have the biology correct.” For one reader, at least, I had successfully woven in uncited research as I linked the nestlings’ development with my own recovery from a hip replacement. Now, with that essay out for review, I’m hoping an editor somewhere concurs.
For a retired academic like me, writing creative nonfiction feels like coloring outside the lines. I taught Research Writing to hundreds of high school and college students. We slogged through MLA and APA documentation and sometimes other formats, depending on students’ majors. Documentation is ingrained in my psyche.
Now, retired and shifting from academic writing to creative nonfiction, I no longer want (Ballenger 174-76) or (Ballenger, 2009, pp. 174-76) to intrude on my prose. But making the research slide into sentences invisibly, or at least not intrusively, is a challenge. So I’ve returned to my teaching roots for help. I cannot write well without doing exactly the same things I asked my students to do.
When I taught Research Writing, I required students to take notes from their sources. Whether on the screen or printed out, from an interview or an observation, they had to write notes. Why? Because writing notes by hand increases the likelihood that you’ll remember that material better. And because interacting with those notes by injecting your own commentary will offer new insights. Highlighting, underlining, and margin notes on a printout are nice, but hand-written notes and personal commentary make the magic. Students hated doing this. It was labor-intensive and time-consuming. I remained adamant. “Turn in notes from at least three sources,” I would tell them. “I want to see the information you’ve gathered and also your personal responses/questions/confusions about that information.”
Guess what. When students had to write out notes and add personal insights, they began to gain control of the material. After some notetaking days, we would do what compositionist Bruce Ballenger calls a bookless draft, i.e., an information dump. I instructed, “Ten minutes to skim through the notes you’ve taken. Now put them inside your backpacks. Do NOT pull them out. Now empty your brain of everything you know. Write about why you chose your topic and what you’ve found. Create a scene about a person, a place. Invent a dialogue. Just write.” To their surprise, students could write about their topics in their own words. Suddenly, they realized they KNEW this stuff. They had been working the words and their own thinking together all along, in their notetaking. Now they could begin to claim expertise in their own voices. This drafting was often awkward and full of gaps, but even that was instructive. What do you still need to find out?
My own journals are full of research notes (carefully documented), random thoughts derived from those notes, and awkward attempts to merge the two into something coherent, graceful, and mostly quotation-free. Often this drafting surprises me and leads me to links that might surprise a reader. Who would expect that measures of the whiteness of LED lightbulbs—the differences between 5000K and 2700K–held the key to why I so desperately changed out lightbulbs in my home after my husband died? “Light Therapy,” published in Hippocampus, explains how the light spectrum connected to my grief.
Some academic safety nets, like keeping careful track of sources, still apply. For all researched writing, I’ve learned to keep two copies. One, with the research made as invisible as possible, becomes the submission copy. The other is identical, but filled with footnotes and links to electronic sources. It stays in a computer file so I can provide fact-verification if an editor asks.
Re-immersion in eloquent, fact-filled writing is helpful, too. In classes that weren’t Research Writing and where students had more freedom to color outside the lines, we often read Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyas Volodoras.” To my class I would say, “Highlight anyplace where Doyle uses information he had to have looked up. The things a person doesn’t walk around already knowing.” It didn’t take long for students to highlight so heavily that their page and a half of text started to curl from wetness. Students would look up from their papers puzzled. How can this be packed full of research, yet read like a poem? How can it be so emotional but at the same time so fact-y?
If you haven’t read “Joyas,” you need to. I re-read it periodically, to remind myself that research can be presented with beauty, elegance, and even humor. Then I return to taking notes and writing information dumps and know that the outcome will be worth the labor.
Helen Collins Sitler’s creative nonfiction—all with a bit or a lot of research—has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Harmony, The Sunlight Press, and Post Road. She is currently intrigued by such things as high school graduation rates in the 1920s and baseball player Roberto Clemente’s many accomplishments.
January 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Heidi Czerwiec
After reading The Witch of Eye, Kathryn Nuernberger’s new collection of meditative and lyric essays about the cruelties inflicted on certain women—mainly “witches” but sometimes saints, though their ends are often equally as bloody—I was furious. As Nuernberger puts it, “I have anger and anger to spare.” Not because of reading the familiar stories—even if the named individuals are new to me, the stories are always “one version of the tragedy after another.” But because of how, as we are reminded in “Translations of the Conclusions & Findings Report for Catalina Ouyang as the True Confessions of Johannes Junius,” a piece on the gross institutional failures of Title IX investigations, words may be used against you: “your words aren’t words, your words are evidence, your memories are words, your feelings are evidence of the opposite of your words, except when they are consistent with something the panel considers evidence.” Having experienced this myself, when a former institution I worked for allowed my words to be twisted and violent threats made to me when I followed the institution’s own policies, I know, as does Nuernberger, that even being a writer does not translate to control over your own words, especially within patriarchal systems. The silences from these institutions were telling.
Creative writing that incorporates research often is about looking past the official account, reading into the apocrypha, the off-the-record, marginalia. Especially into erasures and silences. As Nuernberger relates, “A translator once told me that the first act of translation is to move silence into words.” This tactic is stated in that Title IX essay, which occurs at the end of the collection, but it’s truly Nuernberger’s strategy for both The Witch of Eye and her most recent poetry collection, Rue. While I am here to review The Witch of Eye, I’d argue for a paired reading of these two texts, two sides of the same silence being translated. Both books deal with women and knowledge that have been marginalized, erased, and/or demonized. Rue tends to zoom in more on the knowledge—the natural lore (especially of plants traditionally used for birth control), the whisper network of how to navigate the world of men—that gets deemphasized, suppressed, forgotten. As a forager, I was thrilled after reading it, began looking for the plants she notes, noting descriptions in my mushroom guides of the telltale phrase “brings on the menses.” Rue’s sister, The Witch of Eye, focuses more on the women targeted for possessing this knowledge.
The distinctions of content and genre between the two books are fine—where they differ is in style. Rue is comprised of long poems that trace the twists and turns of the author’s process of mind as she processes these ways of knowing and how they’ve been received, long passages that attempt to create connections to this knowledge, grapple with it, reclaim it, and weave it into a current consciousness and context. In contrast, The Witch of Eye is quite fragmented—punctuated with white spaces that echo the silences she is writing into, translating. These essays are rich, dense with information and images, and yet so clear-eyed in their focus and project. Like the hagstones—the naturally-occurring stones with holes, the “stone monocle” she describes in “The Eye of the Hagstone”—“they can help you see what is real.” Nuernberger braids together historical details, records of confessions and torture, philosophical mediation, myth, personal reflection and narrative, social and literary theory, and theology. These are related in terse sentences and fragments juxtaposed in such a way that you can watch her mind at work on the page and follow the connections she makes as she leaps. In “Titiba & the Invention of the Unknown,” when Nuernberger introduces us to historian Michel de Certeau, who “wants to know what makes ideas possible,” and who insists we ask “what makes something thinkable,” and follows it with bits of transcript from the interrogation of Titiba in Salem, it’s clear the question we are to consider is, how can a culture simultaneously imagine such horrible things are possible, and yet insist that the woman is the cause, despite her denials? Nuernberger also implicates our systems of power in how such imagined horrors are projected onto scapegoats, while actual horrors get glossed over: murders of women, Title IX panels that protect colleges over victims, Carlisle Indian schools, the incarceration of migrant children by ICE.
Lest I make the issues introduced in the The Witch of Eye seem reductive or simply a performance of female outrage, this book is quite complex. Throughout, Nuernberger wrestles with her own involvement. She cites Adrienne Rich: “Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience…and [w]e have a profound stake…in describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.” She struggles with all the ways her marriage makes her crazy, yet also needing to fully present herself to her husband, and how that became a spell, “a slow spell and often a very boring and repetitive one…. It has made me more dangerous and more kind than I would ever have figured out to be on my own.”
These essays are fascinating—while their titles often seem like we’ll be covering familiar material—“Titiba,” “The Devil’s Book,” “Hildegard von Bingen,” “Medusa,” “Marie Laveau”—this is no pop-culture recitation à lá Sabrina or AHS: Coven. Instead, Nuernberger zooms in on the unspoken details: “in ‘The Torture Used Against Witches’ (1577) the cherubic boy-man with curly locks has a boner so big it almost interferes with his capacity to turn the wheel that pulls the woman’s arms unaccountably backwards.” In a lurid depiction of torture, “The parchment is centuries old and tattered, but the pigments have not lost a shade. Or maybe someone came back later to add this color so they could imagine the moment more vividly.” On the pressures of inquisitions to get “new” information and, therefore, the need for inventive details and additional accusations, Nuernberger admits “there are aspects of an inquisition I would probably enjoy [like] adding decorative touches to the archetype of the devil.” Yet she also works through resistance: “The vow of silence is not necessarily a refusal to invent…. It can simply be a promise not to invent each other.”
While musing on the lush green meditations of Hildegard von Bingen, Nuernberger makes her own confession: “I started reading about witches because I thought I’d find people talking about how they felt this green world offering to take over their bodies if only they could figure out how to let it…. Like anybody, I live at the intersection of longing and discipline. Like anybody, I am not sure if I have made the right choices.” This longing for knowledge, and the means to use it, can lead to rage, confusion, and silence. But I’m so grateful for Nuernberger’s attempts to translate those silences.
Heidi Czerwiec is an essayist, poet, and author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.
August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
The Bad Advice Wednesday feature over at Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour failed to deliver as promised today, offering up good advice instead of bad. We hate that. Here is Bill on the efficacy of research as grist for the essay:
A great way to approach an essay and eventually a book is to become an expert at something. You might start with the idea of writing about your summer fishing in the Adirondacks, or about your history as a dancer, or your years working construction, all good–great stories, and fascinating. But as you begin your draft, also study up. You’ve already done your research in that you’ve done the fishing or dancing or building, also in that you’ve read extensively in dance history, or fly-tying books, or building code manuals. But there are many experts in these wildly diverse fields. I’m talking about going micro. So, for the fisherman, Stone flies. For the dancer, say, pointe shoes. For the builder, not tools, but the hammer.
I mean it: the hammer, the shoe, the fly.
Who makes hammers, anyway? Why are there so many types? What do the guys and gals at construction sites have to say about hammers? Who invented the shape we’re familiar with? The first ones were rocks, right? How many murders a year are committed with hammers? …