Issue #0, Online Only
The Essayist in Search of the Essay
The Essayist in Search of the Essay
At the beginning of the fall semester, my department chair sent an e-mail inviting faculty members to sign up for a date to visit her graduate Research Methods class and “talk about [our] research.” Although the majority of the research I conduct as a personal essayist and memoirist involves investigating the recesses of my memory, the work I’m drawn to as a reader most often involves essays infused with research. So as my turn to visit the class approached in October, I kept thinking about four books I read this year.
In preparation for my visit, I e-mailed those four essayists, whose work had truly stunned me, and asked if they’d be willing to write a one- to two-hundred word explanation of their research methods so that when I discussed their books with the class, I could project their words onto the screen and allow them to speak for themselves. Matthew Gavin Frank, B.J. Hollars, Peggy Shinner, and Nicole Walker all readily agreed. Considered together, their responses demonstrate a fascinating range of research strategies.
In Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (Liveright, 2014), Matthew Gavin Frank weaves in playful forays about his research trip to Moses’s Newfoundland home, Frank’s own childhood and family history, and a catalog of bizarre facts and lists that recall Melville’s story of obsession with another deep-sea-dwelling leviathan. Though Frank is armed with impressive research, what he can’t know about Harvey he fictionalizes, quite explicitly, as a way of both illuminating the scene and exploring his central theme: the big, beautiful human impulse to obsess.
When I first saw the carcass of the giant squid in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (in a room one floor beneath that which houses the profoundly boring Hope Diamond), stretched-out to its maximum length in its thermoplastic coffin—unimpressive, dead, and snotty—it did not strike me as particularly obsession-worthy. But when I saw the photograph on the wall above it—the one (as I learned from the 3-line caption) taken by Reverend Moses Harvey in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1874; the first-ever photograph of the giant squid; the image that rescued the beast from the realm of mythology and finally proved its existence; the one in which the carcass is draped over Harvey’s bathtub curtain rod in order to showcase its full size—I became curious about the animal, and the ways in which we’ve variously engaged it over the years. I wanted to know what the giant squid, and our reactions to it, could tell us about ourselves. I wanted to know about the sorts of ancillary subjects I’d have to engage (which turned out to be ice cream, my long-dead saxophonist grandfather, various cultural expressions of pain, and—in an early draft—puppets and puppet parts) along the journey toward something that I was likely misperceiving as super-truth. I became compelled by Harvey’s compulsions, and the sacrifices he had to make in order to chase them toward some nebulous end. I wanted desperately to empathize, so I started chasing too. I started with Google, and then read everything I could about (and by) Harvey, and considered the squid, and considered the ways in which he considered the squid. I’ve long been prone to OCD-fueled flights of fancy, so for a good three years, instead of triple-checking all the locks each night before bed, this is what I did. Via a serpentine path, I got hooked up with Harvey’s great-great granddaughter, who just happens to run the non-traveling archives at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University in St. John’s. She sent me the coolest scans via email. Eventually, I hit a wall in the writing process, and so I lit out for Newfoundland in order to immerse myself in what the filmmaker Werner Herzog likes to call “the voodoo of place.” That, and also to hang out in those non-traveling archives, to whoop it up with Harvey’s descendants, and to stalk the current resident of the Harvey home. I needed to see that bathroom in which a giant squid once hung. Much of the writing process involved me trying to map my own ecstasy (in the face of uncovering and organizing all of this wonderful research) onto Harvey’s assured ecstasy in the face of the fateful specimen, and all of the beautiful and horrible ways that it changed his life.
For Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), B. J. Hollars combed the archives of local newspapers only to discover vast discrepancies in articles about the deaths. In homage to Michael Lesy’s cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip, Hollars pairs reports from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century journalists with fictional versions, creating a hybrid text complete with facts, lies, and a wide range of blurring in between.
Research, for me, takes on various forms depending on the subject, the project, and the resources. And so, when I'm in Alabama writing about civil rights, I hole up in the university archive, read the historical markers, interview everyone I can, and then head over to the microfiche where I read the daily newspaper of, say, 1964, the way most people read the daily papers. However, if I'm researching something more contemporary, I find myself spending less time in the archive and more time on the streets. When I'm writing about contemporary subjects, the key is to talk to as many folks as possible. To end each interview with a single question: “Who else might I talk to?” Having said all this, try not to search in the obvious places. I mean, you should search there, too, but then you should expand your search to look in places where no one else ever looks. And when I say “look” I mean “go there.” A few summers back I forced my family to take a 1000-mile road trip to a pet cemetery for a project I was working on. This spring break, I’ve persuaded them to join me in my search for a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker in Arkansas for another project. And so, another good suggestion is to surround yourself with people who not only allow you your obsessions but come along for the ride. Finally, and most importantly, when you're researching you must live your research. Take the blinders off and see how the radio report on NPR dovetails with a headline in the paper. See how a university lecture syncs with the traveling art exhibit. Often, I've found, the world just throws you favors when you consider everything a clue.
In lauding Quench Your Thirst With Salt (Zone 3 Press, 2013) by Nicole Walker, Robin Hemley describes how she “investigates all that is contradictory and curious in the micro climate of her immediate family and the macro climate of Utah to create not a dry treatise, not a windless flight of experimental prose, but a natural history of thirst in all its manifestations.”
I truly admire those who still leave their houses to do research. I like the idea that research comes first, then writing, but that's not quite how it works with me. I like to bring information and the outside world into my essays but I almost always begin with a short, personal anecdote that leads to something I need to qualify or quantify. For instance, I was writing an essay yesterday about microorganisms and how I wish I had defensive microorganisms in my brain like the ones I have in my stomach. Although I knew the names of the bad bacteria, E. coli, salmonella, I had to use Google to find the names of good bacteria (lactobacilli, which I realized I did know but couldn't spell, was one of them). What microorganisms fight E. coli, I asked. I have a lot of faith in the Internet that if I ask the question just right, it will lead—even though I may have to scan through fifty sites—to the answer. It's the open-ended nature of the Internet search engine that I like. The name of the old browser ask.com matches my philosophy and my itinerant topics. What is the name of that one microorganism? How does whale poop sequester carbon? When was the dishwashing machine invented? How many pounds of plastic swirl in the ocean? If I could stick to one topic, another form of research might work for me, but my natural way of writing is to start typing down the main stalk of the story, ask a question that leads me to a branch over here, ask another question that leads me to a branch over there. As long as I always go back to the main stalk, I don't get lost, and, eventually, something organic takes shape.
In You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body (University of Chicago, 2014), Peggy Shinner offers a collection of twelve searing and witty essays about the body: her own body, female and Jewish; those of her parents, the bodies she came from; and the collective body, with all its historical, social, and political implications. According to Lambda Literary, “Her interests are wide-ranging, fueled by a deep curiosity and a talent for research.”
Research is like fishing, (which I've never done!). Drop the net in the water and see what turns up. I usually start with something personal: feet, posture, autopsies, shoplifting. But my next impulse, close behind, is to tether it to something else, to find the places of collision with the larger world. I like to think of digression as methodology, to be pursued rather than avoided. How far can I go and still stay connected? My flat feet, so like my father's; Jewish feet (Jewish feet?!), he-goat feet, according to the age-old denigrations; Jews in the military; Jewish athletes; the skein continues. I ask questions, go to Google, the library, bibliographies and endnotes, make phone calls, but in some ways it doesn't matter what I find. I draw the net up, sort through the contents, and then abandon the treasure for a while, never sure what I'm going to use and what I'm going to leave behind. The process is messy and organic and mystifying and wholly satisfying (when it's working). It's not research-driven, but the research is central. It's driven, instead, by a set of underlying pressures, some overt, others merely sensed. And by the sheer joy of curiosity. I dredged up Charlie Chaplin's Tramp at some point, and his iconic feet made an appearance too.
Reading these four essayists, I experience dual narratives—the ones they’ve created for me on the page and the ones I imagine. I follow behind Frank as he wanders through the fog of a Newfoundland cemetery. I pass by Hollars, hunched over the microfiche reader in the darkened basement of a university library. I stand behind Walker as she sits at her computer, click-click-clicking from one site to another, and I lean against the table in the special collections while Shinner sifts through letters. This, to me, is one of the most engaging and profound elements of the personal/research hybrid—the essayist in search of the essay.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. His essay collection/cookbook, tentatively titled The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic State-by-State Tour Through America’s Food, is forthcoming in 2016 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.
B.J. Hollars is the author of two award-winning nonfiction books—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction was published in the fall of 2014. An assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog.
Peggy Shinner is the author of You Feel So Mortal / Essays on the Body (University of Chicago Press, April 2014), which Flavorwire included among its 25 Great Books You Might Have Missed in 2014. Her work has appeared in BOMB, The Southern Review, Colorado Review, TriQuarterly, Fourth Genre, Bloom, and most recently on Salon. Newcity, Chicago's cultural weekly, named her one of the Lit 50 2014: Who Really Books in Chicago, and she has been awarded two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships and a fellowship at Ausable Press. Currently, she teaches in the MFA program at Northwestern University. She's online here.
Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and, with Rebecca Campbell, 7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.
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