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.
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.
December 5, 2019 § 13 Comments
The woman at the gym combined a theatrical streak with a fun-filled manner, which matched what I wanted in a girlfriend. It was early 2004, and until recently, Jan had been married to one of the Dodgers. Finally, she agreed to have dinner with me. Until the entree arrived, we’d been talking about movies. Then, without warning, she asked, “Was your father an actor?”
“My aunt knew him,” Jan said.
“Who’s your aunt?” I asked.
When Jan told me, I dropped my fork. I’d met her aunt many times during the early 1960s, when I was in high school and her aunt and my father were having an affair. Eventually my father’s second wife learned about it, and once she did, Jan’s aunt and my father went to ground, still quietly seeing each other until my father died in 1968.
For years friends had urged me to write about my father, a character actor who’d played Philip Marlowe on the radio, appeared in dozens of TV Westerns, four Perry Masons, and movies ranging from Gilda to Guns, Girls, and Gangsters. But I balked. Following his death, I’d said almost nothing. That changed around 2000, when, slowly, I began to feature my father in essays. As I did, I wanted to connect with people in his life. A reunion with Jan’s aunt might have sorted out a lot. But that wouldn’t happen.
“My aunt died three months ago,” Jan said.
The aunt’s son agreed to sit down with me. I met him for a few minutes, but before we could arrange a long talk, he too died. I found myself chasing lives that, if not extinct, were fading fast, often just ahead of my phone call. I reached out to several of the leading ladies in my father’s campy movies. Peggy Castle, from Invasion USA (1952). Cathy O’Donnell from Terror in the Haunted House (1958). Both had died in the 1970s. Naura Hayden, my father’s love interest in The Angry Red Planet, had been single when she and my father made that 1959 sci-fi flick. Knowing my dad, I was sure they had coupled a few times. But she’d died, too.
I tried to get in touch with children of my father’s friends. One died just weeks before I tracked her down. An elementary school classmate whose dad had worked with mine met with me for an hour. We planned another get-together, but three months later, she was dead. I cried the day I learned, then cursed myself for being a slow writer. That’s also the moment I realized what happens if you wait until age seventy before starting a memoir. The people who can feed your recollections—they’re all dead.
I reached out to James Garner, star of Maverick. He was too sick to talk with me, and a couple of weeks after my phone call, he died. At least in his memoir The Garner Files, he praised my father as “the one I had the most fun working with on Maverick…He could tell a joke better than anyone, and he had a bunch of them. Never repeated himself. And he was a pro.”
Without people who can help me remember, I’ve turned to archives, press clips, school yearbooks, old newspapers, and, fortunately, the few contacts still alive. I’ve worked my memory like a bodybuilder bulking up. Anything that nurtures it, I’ve tried. Thinking in the dark. Staring at photos. Playing forgotten songs. Driving by a house. Plunging deep into Google. Eating children’s foods (Remember the Sugar Daddy? — “Lasts an hour or more…only costs a nickel”). Occasionally I’ve speculated about what a departed person would say, careful not to present my imagination as truth. Sometimes I’ve had to refocus an essay, narrowing it to what I know is factual.
At least I was lucky with Jan. Thanks to her aunt and my dad, we now call each other “cousin.” I just wish her aunt had lived to share some of her remembrances.
At a recent writing conference, an eighty-year-old started reminiscing about, of all things, the mules on her family’s farm—their names, colorings, and other details. I was losing interest until she snapped me back to attention by boasting that now, with everyone who knew her gone, “I’m free to say anything.” I hoped she was joking. The absence of guides on the road to the past hasn’t emboldened me. It’s made me nervous, because I crave recollections and corrections to strengthen my work.
At that same writers’ conference, a speaker advised memoirists, “hold off on interviewing until you’re ready.”
Not a good idea.
I recommend doing instead what they taught me when I practiced law: find witnesses as fast as possible and preserve their testimony. Witnesses have a habit of forgetting things, leaving the country, or dropping dead.
In other words, hurry up, or you’ll be too late.
To younger would-be memoirists: save your school newspapers, your homework assignments, your report cards. Save your parents’ letters, save your social media photos, save everything. Your parents, roommates, and spouses may label you eccentric thanks to all that stuff in your closet. Ignore them. Eventually you’ll be rewarded with striking details on the page.
Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, Superstition Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State (2017), and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.
March 15, 2018 § 22 Comments
Family history. Why would anyone waste their time with it?
In the summer of 1993, I agreed to do just a bit of ancestral research, at the request of my great-uncle. I was quickly lured into the mysteries of century-old handwriting, sepia-toned photographs, and the personal details in local newspapers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I began to write essays about my ancestors, who were much more interesting than I’d thought. My publication record for these pieces is scant, but I persist. At first, I had to go to libraries or historical societies and do battle with microfilm machines. Now I can do most of my research online, from my home office.
So when the newspaper database I use added two decades of issues from Muncie, Indiana, I set aside some time to search. I already knew a line of my family had lived there from 1888-1912, where my third-great uncle, A. A. Arnold, owned a small manufacturing business. His own education ended when he was twelve, and began to learn a trade, but he sent all three of his children, two boys and a girl, to college before 1910. His older son became a priest and eventually, a bishop.
Skimming my search results, I stopped dead at this, from September 3, 1905:
followed by my uncle’s business and home address, across the street from the Catholic church, where he and his wife were godparents for a good portion of the families in the congregation.
This can’t be right, I thought. Surely, if he had some kind of illicit side business, he wouldn’t have advertised so blatantly…would he?
My negative stereotypes about power and institutions have been reinforced daily of late, and I know things were even more skewed toward powerful men 113 years ago. It’s not that I expected my ancestors to be perfect, but this didn’t fit with anything else I’d learned about them. I did a bit of research: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the age of consent in Indiana had been raised from 12 to 16, but the laws were not applied consistently. This did not make me feel any better.
As I put away my papers and poured a pre-dinner glass of wine, the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” morphed into “Stripper Girl” and settled in as my personal earworm.
The next morning, after some strong coffee, I sat down with my folders of notes on my Muncie ancestors. I am only an amateur historian, as evidenced by the stacks of photocopies I constantly—and unsuccessfully—try to organize. I began to search through them, not sure what I was hoping to find. My persistence was rewarded when I removed the binder clip from a stack marked “Background/Misc.”
One of the first steps in cigar-making is to remove the thick vein from the middle of the dried tobacco leaf. Now it’s mostly done by machines, but pulling out the stem by hand doesn’t require a great deal of strength, so before automation it was often a job performed by women. My uncle was a cigar manufacturer.
Occupations were included in the early city directories and by searching for “A. A. Arnold,” I could identify some of his employees. In the 1893 directory I found a Katie Gallivan, “tobacco stripper.” A quick search of the census showed she would have been twenty in 1893.
Health hazards from tobacco hadn’t yet been established. But my uncle advertised “union made” cigars, so I like to think his workers were treated well, at least by late 1800s-early 1900s standards.
The Beach Boys quietly surfed out of my head.
If I had the sort of neat and legible journal that could serve as a reference for future essay writing, I would turn to a fresh page and start a list. Instead, I’ll blog it here:
- Remember: words matter, but they can have multiple meanings.
- Consider context.
- Maintain a sense of humor.
- Write your own stories, and the stories of other people, with care. If something doesn’t fit, it’s worth trying to figure out why.
When I found the “stripper” want ad, I could just see my dad shaking his head and saying, “Always let sleeping dogs lie.” I prefer to poke them with a stick, gently, and see what I can learn. It’s risky, but far more interesting.
Melissa Ballard’s work has appeared in Brevity, Compose Journal, Full Grown People, Gravel, and other publications.
October 16, 2017 § 11 Comments
Over the next few months, author Stacy Murison will occasionally explore how she uses basic principles of creative nonfiction with students in her first-year composition classes. This is the first in the series.
We regularly ask our students for more supporting evidence in their essays, whether they are writing a rhetorical analysis, an argumentation paper, or a research paper. But it’s often challenging for students to understand what kind of evidence will support their ideas. Even with evidence, they don’t always feel confident making a hypothesis or developing a research question that may challenge them.
As their beginning research project for the semester, my students write an I-Search, which is a student-directed inquiry project. The main paper component is a 1,200-1,500 word narrative describing how they develop their question and conduct research. For this project, it’s the story of their research process that is important, not necessarily the results of their research. I spend most of the unit stressing the development of the best question they can ask rather than finding an answer to their question. This concept is often challenging as it is not a traditional research paper where students can expect to find at least the beginning of an answer to their question. The other challenge is getting students to write narratively about their research and question development, something beyond “And then, I went to Google Scholar.”
I decided to develop a creative writing exercise to help students understand how to craft a research question, how to gather evidence, and how to write their search narratives. While doing my own research for a young adult story I was writing, I had an idea for a group of teenagers who discover a well-preserved abandoned home to make their own. I spent weeks searching for “perfect” abandoned house photographs, which eventually became more interesting than my story. I was fascinated by the condition of some of these places, and was surprised to see that many of the articles that accompanied the photograph listed the contents of the houses, but the reporters often didn’t go the extra step of finding the family, interviewing neighbors, or sharing an educated guess with readers about what may have happened to the homeowner.
To guide students with both research and storytelling, I share my fascination with the abandoned house stories and photographs. I then show them a photo of this abandoned living room that also appeared to have functioned as a music room:
The prompt involves opening with the question: What Happened Here? I ask students: what was this room used for? and what time period was this room “frozen” in? The first is often answered quickly: a living and music room (guitar case, multiple record players, and chairs possibly arranged for “listening”). This helps students develop their “research question.” The next step involves some actual research—usually we look at the furnishings and the stereos/record players, but also the books, using image searches on the internet. I might give them some hints, such as stereos from the 60s and 70s and furniture from the 40s and 50s. I even allow them to use their cell phones to search the internet.
Instead of asking them to write an essay with supporting evidence, I then ask them to write a story about what happened to the family using the evidence as descriptors of the space—the molded guitar case, the water-damaged bay window, even the fake flowers looking like just picked from a garden, etc. After they complete the exercise, we spend time reading and talking through some of the stories and what led each writer to their story of the place and the homeowners.
The challenge with this example is that we all want to know what happened to the homeowners from the photograph. I then share the full article with the class. Although personal papers were found on the premises, the reporter doesn’t reveal the homeowner’s name, nor does it appear that she attempted to find the homeowner. Each piece of photographic “evidence” presented—vacant, fully furnished rooms, silverware, beauty products—only adds to the question of “what happened.” The questions become more refined as we discuss the images and the article, such as “Why would someone leave all of that expensive audio equipment behind?” and “a guitar in a case is easy to carry—why didn’t someone take it?”
When the students get more excited about the types of questions they can ask based on the evidence, then I know it’s time to introduce the full prompt for the project. As they prepare their research questions and start to find some evidence, they can discern what makes a more complex research question and how to tell the story of their search. I see students take more risks with the questions they ask, and also in refining their question through ongoing research. One student is at the point now where each new piece of evidence she discovers helps her reframe her question. She is not going to settle on one question for this paper—instead, as she garners more evidence, her question continues to evolve. What she’s writing about now is how to craft the “right” question. And she’s still excited about the project, rather than being frustrated at not finding an easy answer.
Filkins, Scott. “Promoting Student Directed Inquiry with the I-Search Paper.” National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Accessed 30 September 2017
Rahman, Khaleda. “Untouched for decades: Photographer captures perfectly preserved home that was abandoned for years.” Daily Mail Online. Accessed 15 September 2017
Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.