Taking Research on the Road

Research is necessary for the writer. We research everything from the right kind of devices for writing, publication procedures, literary agents, publishing houses, facts versus fiction, writing markets, coaches, editors, people, professions, places – the list is almost endless. Research is essential for us to find the right fit for our work, and often it can take as much time, it not more, as the time we put into the act of writing.

Today’s technology, as distracting as it may be, it a most useful tool. I spend a lot of my time travelling from one place to another – the advantage for me living in a congested city is that I rarely drive, so most of my travel is as a passenger on public transit. The time it takes travelling from one place to another is the perfect opportunity for me to log onto my smart phone and browse the internet for information on the topics I am currently researching. The worldwide web is our door to almost anything we need to study – but I there is also another way to explore our writing world, and that is to actually get out into it.

My favorite kind of research is the type that takes me out on road trips. Recently my partner and I stole a weekend and travelled out to a historical ghost town a few hours from where we live. We spent an entire day following winding roads over majestic mountain passes, invigorated by fresh air that always holds a touch of fall even in the midst of a blazing hot summer. Eventually we turn a corner and dip down into the dry desert terrain, where an unforgiving heat smolders over sagebrush and sand.

We find our tiny little ghost town exactly as we expect – silent, hot, dusty, and almost devoid of human life, but the for the pockets of houses still occupied amid the sleeping debris. I took pictures of the past, walked through deserted streets rousing my imagination to absorb the sights, smells, and sounds. I had an impression in my mind of what I was looking for – I didn’t find it. There was a moment of disappointment. I brushed it off, content to accept the day as a great outing with my partner, when suddenly, I discovered a new insight that would prove to be a most striking revelation for my current project. It was a simple observation that was overlooked in all the previous investigations and research, but it was one I would not have found had I not gone on this journey.

Travelling and exploring the world around us is both invigorating and challenging. We don’t always find what we’re looking for – our research can often lead us to dead ends, creating frustration and a feeling of having wasted precious time, but this is not always the case. There will always be those moments that offer us an opportunity to discover new components that would not have been obvious to us in any other time or place. Those are the moments we celebrate. They wipe our previous defeats, rejuvenate our passion, and validate the path we chose.

I won’t tell you what it was I discovered. It is my fervent hope that one day in the future you will have the opportunity to read about it from the book I hope to place in your hand.

Happy travels.

 

Paper Cups, Hands and Airline Bags

DSC_3303 (3)On stage, when an actor forgets their lines they must improvise in order to keep the dialogue and story moving. In live theatre, there’s no opportunity to go back and start again – actors must do their level best to carry on in spite of forgotten lines, costume mishaps and missing sound cues.

Writer’s also need to develop the skill of improvisation but in a slightly different manner. Much like an actor that must be prepared for anything that can happen on stage, writers must always be prepared to seize inspiration, at any moment, at any time. I have developed a habit of carrying a notebook and a pen in my bag for just such moments, but there are times when I am unable to access my notebook and must be ready to improvise in order to catch my ideas.

I was travelling on an airplane recently, and we encountered some turbulence. I had been happily typing away on my tablet, but then came the announcement for table trays to be returned to their upright positions and seatbelts securely fashioned. I reluctantly put my tablet away, and patiently waited to get through the turbulence. It was at this shaky and ill-timed moment that a tremendous idea came to me – one that would make or break the current article I was writing. I had to get it down, and so I grabbed the first thing that was available for me to write on – the airline’s disposable bag, with a lovely pictograph of a person suffering from airline sickness. I scribbled down my thoughts on both sides of that bag and was even offered an extra one from another passenger in the seat next to me (conveniently, my better half), and I even think the stewardess sitting across from me, who was fascinated by my writing frenzy in a moment of unpredictability, was ready to offer me another one.

Here are some items I have written on in a desperate moment:

A paper cup

My hand

A script

A book

A gum wrapper (a big challenge)

A work document (not highly recommended)

A transit ticket (over the small print)

A napkin

A receipt

These are just a few examples of what I like to call “necessary improvisation” for writers.

Regardless of what happens on stage, the actors’ adage is always “the show must go on” – and in the writing world, so must our words.

 

 

 

 

Writing My Life

Screenshot (12)“Is there a blanket ban on writing about my life if it involves anyone else?” – Brooke Wyeth, Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz

I began writing stories in my childhood. It started with writing in my diary, then graduated to the more intricate skills of writing poetry, essays and short stories. I wrote about anything my imagination could conjure, but when I look back now, I see most of those stories and poems evolved from moments in my daily life. My characters were shaped from the people I knew. Plots and stories evolved out of the things I observed. Real life seeped into my writing whether I was aware of it or not.

My first real introduction into the surprising and complicated world of creative non-fiction was about five years ago. I published my first story about my great-grandmother’s farm and the struggle to keep it out of the hands of developers. I found it was easy to write from my memories, enjoying the challenge of painting a picture from a possibly bland topic. After I was diagnosed with RA, I created a blog that described my journey through the day-to-day management of living with chronic illness. From those stories arose the desire to expand and write more about other aspects of my life, and I discovered that it’s sometimes impossible to write my own truth without grazing the lives of others.

It’s a complicated business writing about other people. We own our stories, but we don’t own the stories of others. I have a responsibility to be as honest as I can in my work, but I need to know where to draw the line. No one else can see my truth, just I can’t see someone else’s truth. In my fiction and poetry work, I draw on my own experience and borrow behaviours and personas from the people I meet, disguising them in a hybrid of my own imagination, but in non-fiction, it can be difficult to disguise them. I know that without them, my story would be dry and colorless, so I need to tread carefully, and find a way to respect them without compromising the strength of my work.

It’s a fine line to tread and full of controversy – whether writing about our life or the lives of others, we face the possibility of encountering criticism and objections in how our version is presented. It is the risk we must take as storytellers. We can write the truth or create our own, but we must do it with responsibility and integrity.

The Well

DSCN4598When the afterglow of writing a terrific piece burns out, we often wonder if we will ever match it or top its triumph. We will wallow in the shade of disappointment doubting our ability – but I’ve learned that writing is a deep well always replenishing the words we use, and we will always be able to draw from the springs of our creativity to refill the parched wasteland of accomplishment.

 

A Creative Mess

 

11025736_336682103191483_6577734102002945746_nI am a neat freak by nature – my home is immaculate. I dust, vacuum, and wash on a regular basis. Everything has its place and everything is in that place. Of course, there is always an exception and mine is my writing desk. On most days it looks like the aftermath of a hurricane; on really good days it resembles what my imagination perceives as the aftermath of the apocalypse.

My desk is not the only thing that exhibits the delightfully messy beast of creativity. There’s that telltale blue (sometimes black) ink smear permanently tattooed along the outer pinky of my left hand, the fuzzy smudge bearing the mark of the left-handed writer. And on days when arthritis steps in to thwart my mad scribbling across the page, I turn to my headphones and the glory of voice dictation. But don’t be fooled by this trim compact contraption – it too, bears the tangle of chaos in the messy world of writing. I must be precise and even with all its high-tech capability, it may not always understand what I mean to say. My final product with voice dictation will still be subject to rigorous editing (and sometimes translation) to return it to some semblance of my original account.

Creativity is a messy beast and we should let it wander across the boundaries of our modest decorum. Inhibited creativity will never produce the same quality, discoveries, breakthroughs or rapture during its process. We should let it upset the apple cart, frustrate us, make us dizzy – it should take our neat concept and fling it like a deck of cards around the room, forcing us to crawl through the beautiful chaos it creates. In the midst of that chaos we will find our reward, and only then can we reign in the power of its destruction and produce the brilliant entity we envisioned.