Friday, April 13, 2012

On Research-Based Creative Writing: The Bib

(As usual, I don't mean for any of this to sound instructive: this is not a how-to manual. Any advice I give, at this point, can be taken with an ocean.)

I have, by now, written closer to 200,000 words that have had at their heart the early days of the oil industry in Western Pennsylvania. The current incarnation of the project is called Pithole: The Wickedest City -- a novel about the five hundred days of an oil boom town of the same name. In early 1865, a couple fellas struck oil along an uninhabited stretch of Pit Hole Creek. A couple more fellas came there and started building a town. Over the next eight months, more than 20,000 people moved there: by September 1865, that is, the Pithole post office handled more mail than every other post office in the state, except for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. By June 1866, Pithole was a ghost town. Warped gray wood covered in a thick blanket of oil, scarred here and there by the dozens of fires that had burnt swaths of the town to the ground.

A newspaper writer of the time called Pithole "The Wickedest City East of the Mississippi." My annotated bibliography at this point is over 40 pages, single spaced -- including information from dozens of oil books, Walden, Emerson's journals, The Bible, The Origin of the Species, and an ancient manual about knots and related devices called "Tackle it Safely: Rigging Hand Book" -- and that phrase, specifically, "The wickedest city," has stuck with me more than any other. For all those phrases that have not stuck with me, I have my dear pal, annotated bib.

I can't remember who said, "All good novelists have bad memories."

That's a lie. It was Graham Greene, though, in my own defense, I have forgotten a great many other things: many of which are far more important than Greene's notions about memory.

Which is why I keep an annotated bibliography. I'll admit it: it's not in MLA format, but it does house hundreds of passages, biographical moments, contemporary philosophical inquiries, and other snippets that I return to from time to time to check myself against the past. And most of the citation information is accurate.

The bib, it turns out, has a life of its own. It is a project similar to, but independent from the historical novel: Pithole. The bibliography has been a place for me to keep a great deal of information, without, necessarily, committing it all to memory. Facts, dates, folk song lyrics -- I even have an attached glossary.

Still, liberating though the bibliography has been, I have at times also found it limiting. Let me turn to a pro -- in fact, the place where I first found the above Greene quote -- to help me explain. In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler claims:
What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. . . . Greene's compost of the imagination is the same as the dreamspace, the white-hot center of the unconscious. The point he's making is that not only is your mind the enemy, not only is your will, your rational thinking, your analytic thinking the enemy, but your literal memories are also the enemy.
When used appropriately, the annotated bibliography has allowed me to gather all of my research and compost it in a very real, visible, tangible form. When used poorly, the bibliography has been stifling, instructive, telling me, "No, no. That's not what really happened." When this occurs, when I become too reliant on the bibliography, the story that I'm writing, the fiction, the narrative, becomes entirely untrue. I lose the voice of the novel. I lose the narrative that has been roiling over and over inside me. I lose that great unconscious drive that creates.

I solidly believe that good literary writing comes from an undefinable place in the imagination, a place that an artist can access -- through the practice of a sustained, consistent effort -- but never truly know. This is why writers can be so frustrating to talk to when you ask them the very simple question: "Where did you get the idea for this story?" The idea for a story, for any kind of creative endeavor is something that comes to the piece in its own creation. Stories, that is, are not ideas in and of themselves. They are things. They are things made of things. Literary fiction arises out of the senses -- out of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell -- ideas, morals, motifs: they are the result of the details, not the source. The question -- Where did you get the idea for a story? -- can be most easily answered spiritually: the narrative is the world speaking through me, nature speaking through me, god speaking through me, society speaking through me. A creative narrative is the process of creating -- it is not fact gathering, journalism, reproduction.

My annotated bibliography works when I enter the information, dwell on it, ruminate over it, read it, reread it, and forget it. Set it aside. It works best when I copy a line from an existing text onto a blank computer screen and let that language carry me for hours at a time. Sometimes it takes two or three pages just to bury that line, to let it decompose into my own language and bring a new, different kind of life and language to the surface. This new life is voice. It is narrative. It is at the white-hot center (Butler's words) of literary fiction.

And, then, there's the one other thing, brought to us by Walt Whitman: "Walt, you know enough, why not let it out then?" I have too often, in the process of my research, denied myself access to my writing. I have, that is, privileged the research, and that has lead me, occasionally, to shame. If writing is the end game, sometimes we must allow our annotated bibliographies to suffer*.

So, long story short, Step 1 for a research-based creative writing project: track your research.

*No actual harm was done to an annotated bibliography in the writing of this post.

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