AWP2019: Information to Astonishment—Research as Creative Process in Nonfiction & Poetry

Panel Participants: Lia Woodall, Richard Froude, Tyehimba Jess, Jessica Wilbanks, Dickson Lam

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: Conducting research is frequently an integral part of the writing process. But must it always be germane? This panel of mixed-genre writers will discuss the magic that can happen when investigating and integrating obscure, oblique and sometimes irrelevant material, and demonstrate how found material frequently reveals and enhances themes while also impacting form. Participants will walk away with practical strategies for making the research process less intellectual and more intuitive.


In true AWP fashion, I was late to this 9 am panel because of the construction traffic around the conference hotel, and after rushing down a long hall, the room was full. Richard Froude was speaking first—“distraction is research,” he said. Froude spoke about rethinking his own writing and reading process, and becoming friends with distraction. He cited Kerouac’s philosophy of “submission to everything,” and suggested embracing distraction as a practice, and being alert to its potential. The physical point of writing is only one point—the end point—of the process, the part that creates an object. Rethinking writing means thinking of writing as more than just an explicit act of creation—for him, most of writing is the thinking beforehand. Ultimately, Froude suggested, we should consider “entry by openness.”

Next, Lia Woodall opened with “Form is your friend; so is Wikipedia.” She unpacked how she shaped her own story of “becoming a twinless twin,” after her brother’s suicide. As a former lawyer, she has learned to consider research “intuitive and exploratory.” While she researches, she looks for the following:

  1. “Sparkplugs”—jolts of connection
  2. Abstract concepts as metaphors
  3. Original language
  4. Form that acts as a roadmap

The examples of these concepts in Woodall’s story were stunning—while researching, she became fascinated with the shape of the ellipse, which is different from a circle because of its distance between two foci. Of her own story, she asked, “What happens to an ellipse when one of the foci is lost, a bullet to the heart?” Because it has two points, an ellipse is called bipolar, which was also an illness her brother had.

Woodall’s research led her from the ellipse to the ellipsis, which she understood as metaphorical … the absence, the white space in her twin story. She also changed the form of her piece into two columns—twins. The neighborhood where she grew up was called—what else?—Twinbrook. Woodall’s own “sparkplugs” were a reminder to find your own, and let them light the path ahead.

Dickson Lam discussed next how he used to approach memoir like fiction at first—he wrote a lot of scenes, and worried that research would pull the reader out. But later, he used research about the divorce rate in Hong Kong (50% lower than in the US) to complete his story about his parents’ marriage, much of which he was not present for. Research, he said, adds trust and authority to the narrative, for the reader. He also discussed the need for patience—an article about graffiti simmered in his memory for over a year, when he later revisited it with the same themes that appeared in his memoir—a broken family, a connection to the past.

Next, Jessica Wilbanks discussed how, for her, research became her “scaffold for a soggy essay.” She suggested that, rather than thinking of research as fact-checking, wee learn to trust our subconscious more than our intellect. She suggested we can do this by:

  1. Trusting the topics we’re drawn to—pay attention to what’s hottest or when something becomes “sticky”
  2. Going close to objects—when you’re stuck, go to the objects. This helps get you out of your head. For Wilbanks, when she was writing about post-partum preeclampsia, she felt stuck and avoidant in early drafts, until a writing mentor suggested she “go home and grab the blood pressure machine.”
  3. Integrating yourself—Min-Jin Lee, author of Pachinko, researched her novel Free Food for Millionaires like a journalist. She sat in on an MBA class full of attractive, confident, problem-solving people, and took that feeling of confidence and gave it to her main character.

When we research, Wilbanks reminded us, we are looking for more than just facts.

Lastly, the poet Tyehimba Jess traced his own research on blues musician “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. For him, his research was “figuring how to translate anger into creativity.” He also got close to objects, visiting the Smithsonian to see original recordings and to Shreveport, where Lead Belly was buried. For his book Olio, he wanted to find “where [he] stood in history.” Here, too, were “sparkplugs” and coincidences: He wrote a crown of sonnets about each of the first nine Fisk Jubilee singers. When his research dovetailed into the burnings of black churches and into the Charleston church shooting in 2015, nine of those congregants were killed. This same church had been the first black church burned down in 1821. Just like a crown of sonnets, where the first and last lines repeat, this church had been both the first and the last to burn.

Jess brought the whole panel together when he noted a pattern: every speaker had discussed research as “a quest for a better understanding of the self.” He said, “You start a relationship with the subject…You become part of the subject. Your writing, the object, becomes part of the conversation.” Research isn’t research, he said; “You are trying to scratch the itch that will make you whole”—the urge that drives you, the fascination, the astonishment.

At the end of the panel, one of the audience members raised her hand to ask a question. When she introduced herself, I recognized her as a professor at my alma mater, Michigan State University. She had just visited the special collections at MSU’s library, and there, on display, were hymnals from the Jubilee Singers. The audience (myself included) recognized this coincidence, and we all said “mmmm” together, like we’d tasted something delicious. This panel taught me that what seems like coincidence is far more—in the research process, rather than being a scholar, allow yourself to be open and to be patient, to recognize the coincidences and make them feel intentional, to scratch that itch and be unafraid of the quest.


Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer, and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of a collection of essays called Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017). She received her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California, and is also the managing editor at YesYes Books. Other writing is published in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Profane, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. She’s at work at an essay collection about disaster.v


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