AWP2015: The Research Behind the Writing

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Sue Eisenfield, Mark O’Conner, Peter Selgin, Laura Long, Allen Gee

Embarking upon years of research for a creative work can be a daunting task. The panelists at “The Research Behind The Writing” proved dedication and resourcefulness are keys to a research-based work of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.

Sue Eisenfield, author of Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal says her project began after “hiking Shenandoah National Park for 15 years and finding relics of old houses and cemeteries.” She knew, “there was a story here I wanted to tell.” Her “first line of research,” was full experiential immersion. She stayed in homes and tents with mountain men, went to family reunions, and hunted down 1920s and 30s maps from the USGS. Her “second line” of research, Eisenfield said, is to find everything that has already been written about your subject. “Often, secondary sources disagree, and you can compare and contrast those voices.” This also allows you a chance to “digest and reprocess” and look for a way to make your own mark. She urged writers in attendance to ask, “How can you not do what other writers have done?”

 Dr. Mark O’Connor, author of the essay “Holy Ghosts” published in The Massachusetts Review, moved to the Polish Hill in Pittsburg and became fascinated with the history. “Old Polish residents were being replaced,” O’Connor said, inspiring him to start an oral history project and interview residents. “If you ask enthusiastic people, they are happy to give up information.” He also found old journals and consulted church history records. The question of “When is the research done?” is unanswerable for O’Connor. “When you live in the neighborhood, there are always newcomers, so it’s ongoing.” The gentrification of Polish Hill, the influx of anarchist subgroups and the shifts in architecture all continue to interest O’Connor.

Laura Long author of, “The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems” described her research as split into four parts:

  1. The charm/enchantment of the project
  2. The rush, and the dawning of gaps in the research
  3. Spreading the net
  4. How do I transform this?

Long found a biography of Caroline Herschel while perusing a library, and was instantly charmed. “She was coming off the page.” Long remembers. In researching the life of the female astronomer, Long found that Herschel was “fiercely private” and burned all her diaries, a setback for any researcher. Long says Herschel’s volumes of astrological calculations demonstrate a love and passion for the stars. Long said that even though she was writing poems, it was important that she retain factual information. “I didn’t want to make up this historical figure,” she said.

Peter Selgin, nonfiction author of “Drowning Lessons” hired a genealogist to help him track down family records. An expense he said was “well worth it” for his memoir about his father. “He never talked about his family, and I wondered, who is this man?” Selgin wondered. One photo in particular, of his father, age 30, voyaging on a sailboat in Itlay, inspired a passage in Selgin’s memoir, which he read as illustration.   

Allen Gee, former “favorite student” of Iowa professor James Alan McPherson, has done three years of research on the life of his mentor. He says, “it is advantageous to get permission from the subject in advance,” as you might uncover uncomfortable family secrets. Gee has already told McPherson that he will not publish this book while he is alive, and sees “huge advantages in this way.” He advises allowing 6-8 years to research, especially if you have other work. Gee obtained permission to go through family boxes, papers, and hundreds of letters, and he has already been copying them for his records. He says to talk with family members first, then move to interview friends and former students. He plans to have stacks of papers, use folders to organize, and engage in a significant amount of travel.

 Whether in the heart of a church, bowels of library, or bushwhacking in the wilderness, these panelists proved that research is not possible without passion. 

Verity Sayles is an essayist from New England. Her work has appeared in Burningword Literary Journal and Dark Matter. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction.

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