Research and Personal Writing

Those drawn to the writing of personal essays and memoirs may eventually discover the need to do some research.

Those drawn to the writing of personal essays and memoirs may eventually discover the need to do some research. You may find that your memory can take you only so far: You may need to go back to the old neighborhood and walk around, talk to old-timers, read up on local history or pore through genealogical archives, housing deeds, census records.

There are other benefits to research, besides filling in the gaps of recollection. Sooner or later, you run out of traumas and triumphs to recount; you have chewed up the tastiest limbs of your life story, and research becomes an alternative to further self- cannibalization. It can also bring a broader significance to your personal story. Research inspires curiosity, helps you break out of self-absorption and understand that you are not the only one who has passed down this road. You begin to see your experience as part of a larger pattern, be it sociological, historical, psychological, anthropological, cultural, political or theological—disciplines useful in supplying new lenses to your private tale.

Let us say you grew up in a relatively new suburb. It might not be a bad idea to examine the factors in American society that fueled the postwar growth of suburbia: the Federal Highway Act, FHA loans, the utopian ethos of planned decentralization, the decay of urban downtowns, racism, white flight and so on. (This is pretty much the approach that D.J. Waldie took in his “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.”) Or maybe you witnessed your parents going through an ugly divorce: What insights can be gleaned from the writings of child psychiatrists about the ways that children adapt—or don’t—to such situations? Say your parents were immigrants who spoke a language other than English at home, and you grew up torn between two cultures: What do anthropologists say about this problem?

You may begin researching some technical field to provide a stronger answer to the question “Why should my little story count?” and then end up more interested in the area under study than in your personal narrative.You may find you are using your I-character as a guide to help the reader through abstruse material, rather than as the central focus. In other words, the proportion between self and world may shift in the process of researching. Or you may end up throwing out most of the research and just using a little bit as a spice to vary the prose palate. In most cases, however, research will assist you in conceptualizing more broadly the questions you would like to put to your experience.

Travel literature is one area where the two approaches comfortably merge. While doing extensive research on the countries through which they are traveling, the best travel writers, such as Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ryszard Kapuściński and Bruce Chatwin, employ their I-characters to fetch adventures that can then be juicily related.

Scientists or doctors have an advantage over the rest of us in that they can convey the knowledge from their research with an easy authority. Hence, the appeal of such graceful literary savants as Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Selzer and Lewis Thomas. In my next lifetime, I hope to be a scientific scholar; but in the meantime, I give myself research assignments, sneaking off to the stacks whenever possible.

I was once asked to contribute a personal essay for an anthology about the Book of Genesis, by picking a Bible story and ruminating on it. I chose to write about a pair of incidents when Abraham, fearing for his life when approaching the border of a potentially hostile people, passes off his wife Sarah as his sister.
I could have stayed home and merely reflected on it, but instead, I rushed off to the library to learn how the medieval rabbis and modern Biblical scholars interpreted this seemingly cowardly act by a patriarch. What I discovered (some rationalized his act, others disapproved) formed the basis of the first part of my essay. Then, I researched what Sigmund Freud and Karen Horney had to say about married couples devolving into sibling- like pairs; that became the second panel. Finally, I told the story of an incident that occurred during my first marriage, when we were traveling through Morocco. I hoped the personal vignette, which would have been inconclusive if recounted alone, would be enriched by the perspectives provided by Rambam, Adin Steinsaltz, Freud and Horney.

The main concern emerging writers have about the research process is how to know when to stop.You begin poking around a complex new field about which you know next to nothing—wine, say, or rugs, or nongovernmental organizations in Africa; you realize you could spend the rest of your life studying it, and you quickly become overwhelmed by its ever- expanding ramifications. Believe me, it does narrow eventually. After a few weeks at the library, on the Internet or in the field, you notice that the sources are telling you something you already know, and you grasp the major “schools of thought.” Here, the creative nonfiction writer can follow the journalists’ lead. Being trained generalists—quick studies who can opportunistically leap on intriguing vignettes and facts, give them a vivid twist and forget the rest—journalists know they don’t have to become specialists; they just have to absorb enough of the material under momentary scrutiny to file an interesting story. When researching, what you are looking for is the oddity that will spark your imagination, excite your love of paradox or humor.

There comes a time when you feel you have done enough research for your modest purposes and can begin to write. Now, you face a new dilemma: how to integrate the technical matter you have uncovered into your characteristic prose style. When I was writing “Waterfront,” I had to investigate a number of complex subjects: bridge engineering, marine biology, the anatomy of shipworms, public housing law. Each time I researched some new area, I was awed by the specialists’ expertise. I thought to myself: They know everything, and I know nothing—how can I pretend to explain it when their language is so persuasive? So I quoted them, but this led to long boring extracts, which my editor convinced me would have to go. I needed to paraphrase the research somehow, put it in my own words, warm it with my stylistic breath.To convert this obdurate magma into something relatively essayistic, intimate, conversational, I had to call on every trick, irony and witticism I could muster. At one point, this meant lampooning the tone of a pedantic biologist; at another, playing up in a self-deprecating way my ignorance. I gave myself the challenge of writing the heroic but too-familiar saga of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in one long, Jamesian, convoluted sentence. I speeded up the geological cycle of the Ice Age like a silent comedy. No one commented on these devices, or perhaps even noticed them, but they helped reassure me I had put a personal stamp on this technical matter.

Researching inspires in you an obligation to finish your writing project, if only to serve faithfully the scholarly materials. It is not longer all about you, but about them, too, as though they had somehow become your offspring when you weren’t watching. “Print me, Papa,” beseech those index cards, those notepads, those Post-Its.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate's nonfiction books include essay collections (Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body); film criticism (Totally Tenderly Tragically); an urbanist meditation (Waterfront); and, most recently, Notes on Sontag.

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