The Messy Threads of Research

I think the general assumption is that, as a personal essayist, we must lock ourselves within our room and our memories, search our mind palaces for that thread of inspiration, pluck it and write about it until its ready for publishing. But, just as anything should be written, a personal essay requires plenty of research. The process of personal essay research is not unlike research for any other type of published work. Depending on the writer, it can be messy or clean. An essayist can follow a single thought all the way to its origin, whether it be in the depths of Google or in a foreign land. In an article for Creative Nonfiction, a literary magazine, Jill Talbot asked a couple of essayists about their own research processes. The answers she received are detailed and diverse. They’ve helped me realize that writing research doesn’t have to be as classy as I dream it up to be. I don’t need to be huddled in an old library for hours, too enthralled in my texts to hear the loud footsteps in the marble lobby below (because the library in my research fantasy is very old, of course.) Research can start with a simple Google query, a “what’s that word that means ‘uncertain’ that I saw in an essay once and that I’m definitely going to steal?” a Wikipedia search for “Ohio.” Research can be anything, including exactly what you need it to be.

Peggy Shinner, author of You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body writes of research:

“Research is like fishing, (which I’ve never done!). Drop the net in the water and see what turns up. I usually start with something personal: feet, posture, autopsies, shoplifting. But my next impulse, close behind, is to tether it to something else, to find the places of collision with the larger world. I like to think of digression as methodology, to be pursued rather than avoided. How far can I go and still stay connected? My flat feet, so like my father’s; Jewish feet (Jewish feet?!), he-goat feet, according to the age-old denigrations; Jews in the military; Jewish athletes; the skein continues. I ask questions, go to Google, the library, bibliographies and endnotes, make phone calls, but in some ways it doesn’t matter what I find. I draw the net up, sort through the contents, and then abandon the treasure for a while, never sure what I’m going to use and what I’m going to leave behind. The process is messy and organic and mystifying and wholly satisfying (when it’s working). It’s not research-driven, but the research is central. It’s driven, instead, by a set of underlying pressures, some overt, others merely sensed. And by the sheer joy of curiosity. I dredged up Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp at some point, and his iconic feet made an appearance too.”

Read more at Creative Nonfiction. 

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