Tag Archives: research

Casting the Net

Robert Frost wrote about trees as those who talk of going but never get away. I think of those lines often, not only as a lovely poetic moment, but also as a caution. I’ve been talking for several months, maybe even a year, about the urge I feel for my next major writing project. Some of that time has been spent trying to ignore the idea, to resist the idea, hoping it would go away, or at least back off, but it won’t. I’m not going to lie: it’s a daunting prospect.

The writing phase is a long way off, and I know it will be creatively and emotionally difficult. But first, I have to do the research phase. The very idea makes me go pale. But I don’t want to be like Frost’s trees, talking talking talking. I’ve got to pull up one firmly planted foot and step out into the work of it. I did that yesterday, and it was scary and exciting. I cast my bread on the waters: what if it doesn’t come back? What if the waters throw it back with force?

I sent an e-mail to a person I do not know, asking for help making the contacts I’ll need if I’m going to have a chance of accomplishing my vision. That e-mail was a commitment. What comes next, I don’t know, but over the next few months, I’ll be setting up plans for a month of research next June. I’m putting together a grant application and searching for accommodation. The logistics, all of the not-creative work, are vital. No funding means no research time. Here’s hoping.

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Words as Resource

Diaries, letters, and interviews are terrific resources because they give us people’s own words. Diaries are usually very private documents, letters usually are meant for one or two readers only, and interviews are usually more public expressions. Having all three types is very interesting because we can learn about some contradictions and see what sorts of things people think it’s important to record or mention. When we’re writing family histories, we have to use whatever we’ve got. If there’s only one volume of a journal, only a few letters or postcards, or only one person to interview, it’s still a valuable resource.

Go ahead and read that secret diary, those private letters, and ask the leading questions when you interview. Here are a few tips to guide your work with verbal sources:

  • Notice things like penmanship, grammar, spelling, punctuation
  • Pay attention to dates—historically important, connected to family events
  • Who sent and who received the letters—familiar or unfamiliar to you, surprises
  • Where were letters sent to, received from—known or unknown or unexpected
  • Feel free to interrupt an interview with clarification questions
  • Read letters and diaries several times—unnoticed things can suddenly appear
  • Record interviews, if you can, but make notes, too
  • E-mail interviews can work really well

It took me half a dozen readings of six letters, from one woman to another almost a century ago, before I realized that to be well or to be unwell was a euphemism, which I looked up and found to refer to menstruation. Once I knew that revealing detail, it helped make other things in the letters clear, as well. My assumptions got in the way for the first five readings. There also can be some interesting gaps in journals, such as a wedding going unmentioned. What a diarist includes and omits means something, and it’s fun to figure out what it means.

You could interview a family member about a specific year or event or tradition in that person’s own life. You could interview a different family member in order to get a different point of view on those moments. You could interview someone from outside the family, such as a neighbour or employee or high school friend. In my work with a family of four sisters, I was curious to know how schoolmates saw the girls. That interview also provided me with lots of information about the social lives of teenagers when those girls were growing up.

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Reading Photographs

When I teach courses in lifewriting, I always start with an exercise on photographs because they are the most common resource, and almost everyone has at least one picture. Photographs reveal a vast variety of information. We can see with our own eyes the measurable physical attributes (height, weight, age, shape) of a person, as well as make note of the posture and positioning of the subject in relation to others and to things. We can see what people have. My sister has a lovely pin that is a family heirloom, although we did not know its exact origins. A few years ago, I was sorting through photographs for my work, and—because my sister had worn the pin just recently—I recognized it at the throat of our great-grandmother. I excitedly showed the portrait to my sister, who paused for a moment and said “well, that explains why it never sits right—I’ve been wearing it wrong.”

Look through albums and boxes full of photographs. People always say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but really, a picture provokes a thousand words. Here are a few tips to help you read and interpret photographs:

  • Notice the captions—dates, places, names, quips, nicknames
  • How do people relate to each other—detached, affectionate
  • How do people relate to the camera—confident, self-conscious
  • Who stands next to whom
  • Is the picture a formal studio portrait or a casual family snapshot
  • What are people wearing—overalls, suits, gowns, aprons
  • What are people doing—posing, working, playing
  • What else is in the picture—pets, cars, furniture, machinery, landscapes

Notice all of those things. And then, think about what they mean. Some of these considerations are very revealing for a researcher. Maybe you’ll see that in group pictures, one person stands a little apart from the rest, or that two people are always standing together in the group. It’s possible that you have the luxury of someone with whom you can sort through the pictures and ask questions—who is this? when was this taken? where was this taken?—or that you’re on your own with all your questions. If you give a photograph a little time, it can tell you things you didn’t know, if you let it, if you ask it.

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Chanelling the Energy

I am not one of those people who can multi-task well. Perhaps the whole idea of multi-tasking ends up meaning that a person does a lot of things in a passable way, as opposed to doing them really well. I want to do things really well. As a result, I sometimes don’t get much done. I don’t start because I know (or think) I don’t have the time to finish.

For eight years, I have been working on a project about An Gorta Mór, the Irish Great Hunger. Books take a long time. From the start, I knew that I wanted to write a creative manuscript and not an academic one. That was partly because I had just finished a major academic project in Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. But it was also because I am more poet than scholar and because I knew that my specific focus couldn’t be written any other way. An academic undertaking has to end up with things that can be known, and I was going to write about specific people whose lives could not be known.

It takes just as much research to create what cannot be known. At least, it does if there’s to be any credibility. So, for years, I have read. My shelves have books about Irish plants, tools, history, myth. I’ve read about how to cut and dry turf, how to keep evil out of a cow’s milk, how to prepare for childbirth, when to plant potatoes and how to dig and fertilize the beds. I have visited the National Archives in Dublin, the Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, the National Famine Museum in Strokestown–several times each. I have peered at microfilm in the National Library in Dublin, perused the 1749 Census of Elphin, the 1825 Tithe Applotment Books, Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837),  Weld’s Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832), Shaw Mason’s Parochial Survey of Ireland ( 1814), The Destitution Survey (1847)  and pored over maps, field books, and aerial photographs. I have compiled lists of birds, fish, and mammals native to Roscommon, and included what they eat, how they sound, what season they’re found, what terrain they like.

Every year since 2004, I have spent weeks in Ireland, and since 2007, a lot of those weeks have been spent in Fuerty Parish. I have stood on the land my people worked, stood on the bog where they cut turf, stood in the church where they worshipped, stood in the graveyard where they’re buried. I have walked and walked the roads. And I have started to write. Almost from the start, I knew what the first line would be, and that is always a vital sign for me. When the first line comes, I feel confidence.

Here I am, after eight years, in sight of the finish. Never one to do things the easy way, and always one to let the work tell me where it wants to go, I am writing a book length poem, of seven syllable lines, lyric and narrative, salted with the Irish language, weaving history, myth, and culture. I know that I will polish once I get all the way from 1834 to 1849, but a full and nearly finished draft will be done by mid-February. I’m committed to that.  I’m channelling my energy, designating January as Hungry Grass month. I’ve set an average daily line quota. I need a talisman against distractions.

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Currently Writing

My current bio project has required me to change my method, and I’ve had to adapt to someone else’s timetable. When I was writing Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I was working on a personal project, not being paid for it, and working largely on my own timetable. The research took years, and I could pursue any line of investigation I wanted. In the end, the voice was all my own, interpreting all the research as I saw it. Everything meant what I decided it meant.

Writing for hire is a completely different beast. For one thing, it pays, making it a very nice beast. But that also makes it a more demanding beast, in terms of finishing the manuscript and in terms of the subject’s image. There is a fixed (supposedly) timeline, set out in the terms. The client has last say, and therefore controls the research entirely, what to share, what to withhold. The writer writes, and having writ, waits for the client to approve.

For the last week or so, as I try to sort all the research, I’ve been thinking about an article I recently read. The subject was the biographer’s voice. If the biographer’s voice doesn’t emerge, then it’s nothing more than transcription. That’s a sobering observation. If I’d wanted to be a stenographer, I would have gotten a different kind of training. My hand, my critical eye, will be present in the shape of the finished project, but I have to create a place for myself in the story of someone else’s life. I hope to be there in the transitions, those spots where meaning and connections are made. And, I have to accomplish that in such a way that the whole reads as though there is one voice only. It will take deft handling.

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Biographers’ Ethics

A friend happily informed me over dinner that I was a professional writer. Until I heard him say it, right out loud, I didn’t realize it, feel it, fully. We’re all secretly frauds, after all. And, my head had been down for years, as I scrabbled to make a living. I’d been teaching a lot, but for the first time, I was working on a project big enough to support me. A biography. Lifewriting is my doctoral specialization, but, when I prepared my requisite ethics approval and protocol for the degree, no one asked me if I’d be having sex with my subjects. Later, my publisher didn’t ask about that, either.

I was asked if I’d be experimenting with live subjects, but I thought that was covered by an explanation of my research and interview strategies.  I didn’t read the question as a euphemism. And, I did state that I agreed with Plath’s biographer, Anne Stevenson, not to include anything that would harm the living without serving any good purpose for the story. I meant it. There were some alcoholics in my subject group, but I didn’t out them individually. I made my point by discussing the overarching effects on the group. A biography isn’t exactly a tell all.

I wasn’t writing a written-overnight, unauthorized biography of Michael Jackson or a who’s-zooming-whom scandal sheet. Two of the most important considerations in lifewriting are the match of biographer and subject, and of the writer’s voice functioning in what otherwise could be a copy-and-paste exercise. Leslie Kaufman wrote about “The Quandry for Biographers,” in her 13 November article for The New York Times, and it’s an interesting piece to read because it opens this discussion, using the recent biography All In as a touchstone. The quandary is all about the ethics.

So, does it matter, as we watch the Paula Broadwell / David Petraeus story, All In, titillate news consumers, that the reason the biographer had such extraordinary access to the subject was because they were lovers? It may not be as clearly an ethical issue, from a biography point-of-view, as the James Frey A Million Little Pieces debacle. In that case, the guy called it a memoir, and he lied. If he had called it an autobiographical novel, no one would have cared. There would have been a fascination about what was autobiography and what was invention, and he wouldn’t have had to contend with the wrath of Oprah.

Someone might protest that Ms. Broadwell couldn’t be objective if she was sexually involved with Gen. Petraeus. No, probably not. Do we really believe in objectivity anymore? Don’t we instead accept that we cannot be objective, and then try to minimize our subjectivity? I have to say that if I were to write a biography of John Lennon, readers should question my objectivity, and no, it would not be because we’d been lovers. Alas. However, Broadwell and Petraeus’ relationship may affect the quality of the book, and it’s the quality of the book that we should care about, as writers. American national security isn’t our purview. The affair may be a factor there, but moralizing, on the basis of his marriage, should be irrelevant in that context.

If there is an ethical question here, for a writer, what is it? The only potential ethical foul that I can see is if the writer has a sexual relationship in order to achieve exceptional access to the subject’s life. Otherwise, who cares? We all have our own codes, presumably, things we would or would not do. But, as a profession, it’s difficult, or impossible, for us to articulate a list we’d all sign, maybe not even a single item list. We aren’t physicians, who very clearly are compromised by sexual intimacy with their subjects.

I am not a fan of the public humiliation of Holly Petraeus, but that public humiliation is the result of extra-marital sex being privileged as the Big Sin and therefore a thing to be trumpeted about the town. Sex between consenting adults ruining careers: there are worse things people could do. Is Mrs. Petraeus’ humiliation an ethical consideration for the writers who released and repeated the big news? If it should be, it certainly wasn’t. Who’s done harm to whom? Scandal mongering should be on the ethics hit list. If the general had an affair with a spy, then it should affect his career. But he isn’t John Profumo. In my opinion, if any writer has done something unethical in this instance, it isn’t Paula Broadwell. But there’s always an “unless,” an exception, a variable—because writing isn’t math.

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A Writer Writes

I’ve been writing all my life–as a child, on walls and on sheet music. When I was twelve, I decided to write a novel about war but was devastated when I got to the end of page one and realized I knew nothing about war. A high school English teacher encouraged the class to enter a writing contest in the local newspaper, and I wrote a poem for the purpose. It won. I still have the cheque. Poetry is my first love, and it was my first book: Shattered Fanatics. The second and third books are both biographies: The Business of Marriage and Medals and Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. Now, I’m working on a third biography and a second poetry manuscript. My work is far more polished now than it was when I wrote that my sister “is a pig girl” on the bathroom door jamb, although that was as sincere as it gets.

But, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I still find it difficult to be disciplined about it. I’ve never been a write-every-day writer. Sometimes, when I have a writing assignment, I find myself paralyzed, unable to start. But, I have learned enough about my writing process to know when I’m stalling and when I have to wait. It’s important to be honest. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk, sorting a mass of research for the bio. Somewhere in all that material, there’s a shape all its own.

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