Saturday, November 23, 2013

Week 14: mini-research; before writing--

Week 14: organizing; mini-research essay.

Let's start with what I don't want. I'm not looking for academic research, footnotes, a bibliography, an encyclopedia article, a generic block of prose. I mean to continue and finish as we have begun--with creative nonfiction that has voice and is individual to the writer.

It's ironic and humbling that after a quarter century of bucking people up about finding research topics for isearch papers that I sit here today going through the same mental gyrations as my students.

Here are the standards I'm setting for myself:

* I should genuinely be interested in the topic

* I should genuinely not know much about it

* It should be easily researchable on internet

* It should be simple enough to allow some closure in the course of an essay--but not too simple either

These are tough criteria! Most anything I'm interested in, I already know enough about so that research would be an artificial exercise. Limiting the topic is also an issue: ten years ago, I spent months reading about and practicing clicker training; thirty years ago, I spent even more months reading about and practicing homebrewing; forty years ago, I began a lifelong quest to find out about and practice horsemanship.

I've thought of a dozen possibilities as I've passed through the last two days, but, since I eschew notetaking, every single one of those possibilities has already fled my memory.

Organization is, right now, a secondary issue. I certainly am not going to offer you a standard template or some classic 'solution' to marshalling facts and data. I tend to think that the writer ought to reinvent the wheel, make it up as he goes along, and figure out the best organization he can in the best workshop he has: his mind.

Later: I find my best ideas on long walks, and after several of those, decided that I should write about my latest problem--falling asleep while driving home from school.

I also do my best writing while walking and a three-miler was plenty of time to sketch in a really hooky lede. Me chewing on Altoids, slapping my face over and over, rolling the car window up and down, drinking coffee beverage drinks from the Neally Corner Store, pushing my latest CD (a 24 lecture series on the New Testament) in and out of the player...all to no avail. A second after I've slapped myself, alarm bells go off. I hear myself saying to myself: "Close your eyes just for a second. Nothing in the world could feel better!"

And then I fight back, shouting "No no no!" to myself. But suddenly I jerk my head up, my eyes open, and my car back to my side of the road.

I even got as far as googling 'fall asleep afternoon' and sorting through likely causes, rejecting some ('Me, a frippin narcoleptic? Sounds like someone who can't stop stealing drugs!') and finally settling on the obvious culprit, the one whose listed symptoms sound so so familiar: not only the afternoon sleepiness, but also the morning headache, the lethargy, the snoring. Sleep apnea.

Yes, I was all ready to roll, but then, fate intervened.... Well, you can read the actual essay for yourself.

Later still: I have to confess this was not really the essay I was envisioning. It is what it is. I could have worked harder at making it a firmer sample of mini-research, but...that would have been less fun. I've done some research! And so should you!

Frankly, this one got away from me. The research part was minimal (do as I say, not as I do, students) but by the time I realized I would have done better to stick with sleep apnea, I was already 1000 words into it. At 2000 words, it is a little too long. But the reason I kept at it was simply this: it was the easiest damn thing to write I've ever written. I kept waiting for blood, sweat, tears, the usual. Instead I just kept rolling!

Well, if you get a third of the way into 'Dog Bite' and put it down in dismay, that would be the reason why I should have stopped, but a writer tapping away can be like a person newly in love. Everything is beautiful! Surely everyone agrees with him! Why stop now?


  1. Nealy's! on rt 1 in northport? Last time I drove by it was closed and I was so sad. They used to let me buy beer there when I was 16 because they thought my Hawaiian laminated id looked accurate (I have brown skin). And when you get off the ferry and realize you are completely on E, Nealy's is the only gas station I ever make it to before breaking down on the side of the road. I think the onset of summer is making me nostalgic for midcoast maine:)

  2. Different place, sorry. This Nealley store is on the way to Bangor in Hampden.