Research or Digression or Both?
If we are halfway inquisitive, we want to learn. If inquisitive to the point of obsession, we can get lost in this learning, this “finding out about.” The moderately curious person may be an irritant to other people in line who angle for a close-up view of a famous painting or, who want to read the sculptor’s bio posted next to his nine-foot brass casting of a preying mantis. The obsessively curious might interrupt a pleasant family dinner and conversation by jumping up from the table, still chewing a mouthful of pot roast, and proclaiming in her brassy way, to no one in particular, “I just have to look it up.”
Who was more annoyed by this caprice: my father chagrined at my boisterous display of curiosity in conflict with proper deportment, or my mother, who put time and love into preparing that savory roast? I don’t care anymore; they forgave me long ago. It was a trait they recognized and would still. For, as I type this, I am sit nearly alone in this pre-dawn hotel lobby. About twenty feet from me wiggles a golden retriever of such magnetism that I am compelled to go over and become a lifelong friend for five minutes. Her kind humans do not resist my effusive manner; I suspect they recognize themselves in me. It is a wonderful suspension of time I spend with Kibble, and I withdraw with reluctance to return to this visit with you, a visit I was enjoying pre-Kibble, now resume.
One can be a nuisance to oneself with a bent for split focus. It forces tasks into the shrinking timetable. Without the beguiling mien of an irresistible pooch, I might have completed this blog and moved on to another item on my list. One could analyze such behavior, look for serious, even pathological, reasons for allowing consciousness to drift at the expense of a sensible self-imposed schedule. This would doubtless enrich a therapist without producing a satisfying resolution. Apparently, impetuous gear-shifting has little to do with pathology and everything to do with curiosity and multifold interests. One is not—necessarily—looking for an escape from an odious or boring task. I am sure you see how it is. There are endless queries to make and byways to explore. Oh, but the anguish at the lack of time to ask the questions and do the exploring, much find answers and make discoveries.
So, to my first point: Inquisitiveness can be a liability when one does research that eclipses the purpose of the hunt. For example, you need to know where to buy the particular hot chile you need for an authentic Peruvian dish for dinner. Tonight. You search online for information. Two and a half hours later, you know a fair amount about a number of chiles, including the volcanic rocoto chile you seek, while you are no closer to knowing where to buy it. You have researched past usefulness, and that does not produce supper. Feeling defeated, you make mac ‘n’ cheese with Tabasco sauce and regale your family with what you have learned about chiles. If you can’t tickle their palates, you can feed their curiosity–except you don’t. They came to table for a taste sensation, not a horticultural lesson.
So too with writing. Working on When the Circus Leaves Town, the third in my series of Ace and Monroe books for juveniles, I was immersed in the search for information about Circus in the 1970s. In fact, I was so tenacious that at times I nearly forgot I was doing this for a book. Worse was guilty thinking about the time wasted looking instead of writing. My fascinating research would have to be evidenced, even highlighted in the novel!. Need I say such padding does not make for a fascinating book?
Of course, writers are not alone in wanting to use research to lend verisimilitude to their projects. Great film editors must not fall so deeply in love with a scene that they lose all perspective. No, if it doesn’t move the story in some useful way, it’s gone,. a snippet of sentiment. Once in the can, the film appears seamless, well-directed, lit, acted, and edited piece, and the team will allow that the loss of that sterling scene was the film’s gain. Just so, better to have too much than to fall short. Research enriches so many endeavors. For the writer, it becomes a link between her and the tale she tells. In one sense, it permits her to live within the story and the story to live within her.
And that’s point two: Just because a writer cannot use all the material collected to lend verisimilitude to a work of fiction does not mean the writer’s time is wasted.
It undergirds a story. For When the Circus Leaves Town, I neither needed nor wanted to produce another biography or scholarly history; a goodly number was already written by some of the very people who became my muses unawares. I did not, in short, have to dazzle readers with what I knew to engage them in the story.
That doggy kiss doesn’t have to be a symptom, or even true procrastination. It may be a panacea for a rough patch or a wandering mind. Maybe it’s a needed break. I choose to think of it as self-exploration. I may insert that irresistible canine into my story and should do if it’s good for the book. I will not do it to justify taking a few minutes’ down time. The value of a writer’s research may be intangible in terms of her product and her purse, but in terms of her own edification, it is worthy beyond measure. There’s no harm in loving a dog for five minutes, tucking the sweetness into memory, then getting back to work.
Perhaps, this post seems long. You cannot imagine how much of it I discarded.