The ChallengEs Of Research

The research phase of writing creative nonfiction involves a different set of difficulties than those of the hard news, deadline writer. If you do not have the time, funds (for airplanes, cabs, trains, hotels, research assistance), or persistence enough to pursue research in great depth, you'd best seek out a different line of work. Reporters speak of how much legwork they have to do to cover a beat or follow a story. Their legwork resembles that needed for the hundred-yard dash; with creative nonfiction we're speaking of the legwork required for the marathon.

Some writers may change their minds about going into creative nonfiction when they see that it requires getting out from behind the word processor, getting up from the comfortable chair, and getting out into the sometimes uncomfortable world outside. They may also change their minds when they discover that they have to follow their people around for weeks or months, almost like a bird dog, immersing themselves in the subject, saturating themselves in data and details.

If you go into this line of writing, you'll want to work with all your senses operating at peak efficiency all the time. You'll try to sense the world with your antennae erect and alert—you've got to try to take it all in. Without this sensory inventory to draw on, once you're back in the office your writing will not have the creative edge required for this kind of writing. You have to willingly (and happily) dig into that which smells bad as well as that which smells wonderful, and listen to that which repels as well as that with which you agree. All of this sensory acquisition will provide the concrete and sensory details you'll need to create the objective reality of the situation for your reader. You'll need, too, to dig deep into the emotional side of those interviewed, uncovering their innermost thoughts and feelings, if you're to give your readers that subjective reality which, when combined artfully with the objective reality, will paint for them as honest and accurate a picture of the world as it's possible for you, a fallible human, to paint. Emotional content enables us to create dramatic, vivid, accurate scenes. A scene that lacks emotional content will likely be less than successful as a scene. An article full of scenes without emotional content may not fail, but it would probably not qualify as creative nonfiction.

One difficulty associated with staying close to a subject is that you may get too emotionally involved, a problem the deadline writer doesn't generally face. After weeks or months of research and interviewing, you may love or hate the person. In either case, your writing may tear your heart out. You know that what you finally write will affect this person's future. Can you stay neutral about the subject to be fair? Should you? Should you take a position and then build your case while remaining as objective as you can? Should you withhold anything from your article or book? Should you withhold anything from legal authorities? As a sensitive writer, such questions, quandaries, and dilemmas may hurt you deeply. You may feel guilty about your necessary voyeurism. You'll have to ask penetrating questions that probe where the person is extra sensitive. That may be just what needs probing, but your sense of propriety may prevent your probing deep enough. If you think that your personality cannot handle such questions without shattering itself, you'd better look around for other writing jobs.

Much creative nonfiction revolves around events and people, and unless you're writing history, you'll want to be present—on the scene—when the events happen. Since you can't control when an event will occur, and since you can't force your interviewees to adapt to your schedule, you almost always have to work within someone else's framework—certainly within the sometimes unpredictable framework of events. They happen when they happen—not when you wish they would happen.

If you're profiling a person, his or her "events" or "scenes" may have no predictable schedule at all—they just happen when life wants them to happen. Luck may put you there when the great scene unfolds, the scene that'll make your article or chapter leap to life—or you may have gone to Oregon to research some facet, and miss it. You can't be everywhere at once, though you know you should be. This is a built-in difficulty—it comes with the territory.

You can see that this kind of research depends a lot on luck and serendipity—things you can't control—so stay clear if you find you need predictability in your life. Be aware that every so often, a project evaporates. You've put in weeks or months of effort, perhaps all on speculation (without a contract), and then something happens—the circumstances, unpredictable when you started, fall apart, leaving you with your research languishing in notebooks or computer memory.

A book project evaporated on me once. When then-President Reagan fired my daughter and her soon-to-be husband from their jobs as air traffic controllers, I thought (even in the midst of all that family heartache) that I had the basis for a book about "our air traffic controllers and where they flew," which I'd publish to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the strike and the firing of those 11,400 controllers. Like most of them, my daughter couldn't find a job in her chosen profession. After a year of bartending and chimney sweeping, her husband was hired, along with forty other men, by the Australian equivalent of our FAA. When all these people and their families went Down Under to work, I proposed to write a book centered on this intrepid group and touching lightly on the other thousands. Since that firing so dramatically distorted the lives of so many young families, I thought it a natural—and I had an "in" that most writers would not have. I went to Australia for preliminary interviews and research, came back, and, through my agent, proposed the book to a number of publishing houses. I couldn't understand their general response. They said, "By the time the fifth anniversary comes around, no one will even remember the strike, let alone care what happened to all those controllers." I did some more research, before giving up. When the fifth anniversary came around, I found that, indeed, no one remembered the strike, or if they remembered it, couldn't care less about it. History had moved on—earthquakes had occurred, floods and fires had come and gone, and the United States had attacked Libya. History has a way of doing that—moving on to other projects. You have to select those topics or people that will endure—or research and write more rapidly and get the book out there as soon as possible.

The last issue I'll mention concerns the research itself, and that is over--researching. If you love the research phase of writing, and many do, you may not know when to stop. If the topic has any substance at all, you could probably do secondary research forever. You might even conduct primary research yourself (multiple national mail surveys of public opinion, for example) and just keep going. At some unpredictable time, however, you'll cross the point of limited returns. Your article or book can handle only so much information, and you'll have to eliminate much of what you've worked so hard to get. The very human tendency is to include as much research-derived information as possible—after all, look at all the time, money, and effort you've put into the research phase—it just seems so wasteful not to include this, and this, and that, and of course, that. Don't do it.

Professional writers may collect a wealth of information, but they do this knowing that from it they'll whittle it down to a small pile from which they'll select the best material. Winnowing the wheat from the chaff gets more difficult as the chaff gets excessive. The other problem of over-researching comes from the time, effort, and money involved in the researching itself. Where does it fail to pay off? A piece of work not supported by enough research will show it; a work suffocating under an avalanche of research-derived information will show it, and may be so burdened as to be unreadable—or, at least, unread. A writer unread might just as well have stayed in bed.

Ethical considerations run through all these discussions of research methods typically used in writing creative nonfiction. The writer must design any research with accuracy in mind, report results with accuracy, and conduct and report on any interviews within ethical standards and guidelines. The next chapter explores some of the ethical issues inherent in research and writing.

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