Deliberate Research

The term “deliberate research” comes from an article I really like, “The Art of Creative Research” by novelist and teacher Philip Gerard, which appeared in the October/November 2006 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, the magazine of The Association of Writing Programs, usually just called AWP. Gerard describes his method of teaching his MFA students how to conduct research for creative works, and early on he lists his three types of research:

  1. Deliberate research
  2. Deliberate Research not directed toward a particular project, and
  3. Accidental Research

The last type describes something of a general openness while going about our lives, which is a personality trait it seems to me that writers must have, but the first two describe my constant work on projects related to Alabama. While I do often conduct “deliberate research” for writing projects that would fall into the first two categories, it is often the “accidental research” that leads me to the ideas for those projects. I boast sometimes that I have never had writer’s block, and it may be because I am always thinking, “Hey, I could write about that . . .”

In the movie, Henry and June – about the infamous writer Henry Miller, his ill-fated marriage to his second wife June, and his affair in Paris with the writer Anaïs Nin – June (played by Uma Thurman) very critically and in a thick Brooklyn accent says to Henry: “You’re a writer . . . you make love to whatever you need!” That’s sort of what accidental research is, and it’s what Henry Miller did: when life wasn’t good enough for him, he wrote about what he thought it ought to be like. Miller also claimed in various ones of his works that he wrote whole books, better than the ones he published, in his head while walking the streets. I can’t claim the same thing, but I seem to have a couple of new ideas nearly every day and couldn’t possibly even begin, much less finish, all of them.

Once, when Joel Brouwer, a poet and teacher at the University of Alabama’s MFA program, came to speak to my students, he said that creative writing is a great career is you’re interested in everything. He began to talk about the last few books he read, which spanned a variety of topics that ranged from scientific to historical, and talked about how he incorporates his broad interests into his work — the same basic concept as Gerard’s “accidental research.” It must work because Joel writes great poetry and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship not too long ago. It’s this idea that anything we do can end up in writing, directly or indirectly, and that somehow writers are always writing. But for me, it’s the mud-trudging “deliberate research” that yields the work. It’s what happens after that kernel of an idea, when I seek out the subject, that is the most rewarding.

Another one of my favorite magazine articles was written by Kaye Gibbons and was published in the Oxford American. Though I don’t have it handy to quote directly or tell you the date it came out, in it she gives her version of “You might be writer, if . . .” I’ll try to tell it the way she did — If you’re often so preoccupied with your own thoughts that people think you’re strange, but you’re too preoccupied with your thoughts to care, then you might be a writer. Sometimes, my wife catches me talking to myself, and she usually laughs, “Who you talkin’ to, honey?” I’ve learned just to reply, “Myself.” Often, what I’m doing is that writing in my head that Henry Miller talked about. I think that good writing ought to sound like someone talking, and it has to be read out loud for the writer to know. So, well, sometimes I talk to myself . . . what of it?

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