The artist has to be something like a whale swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.
One of my favorite things about writing is the research that goes into making a piece well-informed and honest in tone.
When I was in college, I stayed as far away from research as possible, preferring to write analytical essays about whatever novel or article I was reading at the time. Writing essays meant that I could rely on my own findings, my own beliefs–it was very inconvenient trying to find scholarly articles that backed up my argument, reading them, & then condensing 20+ pages of scholarly discourse into one or two sentences that felt more like a distraction from my voice/argument than a supplement to it. Truth be told, if I had never taken a creative writing course, I probably would have left UK believing that looking up information that wasn’t readily available to me was an act of torture.
During both semesters of my Senior year, I took poetry workshops with the professor that I would consider the most influential in my desire to become a writer. During the course, she often berated us for limiting ourselves by not actively looking for new words, ideas, & trends in the world. One moment that sticks out in my mind in particular is when we were asked to read Brian Doyle’s Joyas Voladoras—an essay that examines the hearts of hummingbirds–for the next class. I read the beautifully written essay like every other piece of writing I was given to analyze in college: I read through it once to understand the general themes within the piece, a second time to find connections between them, & then put it in my binder to wait for discussion the next week. Going into class, I felt prepared to talk about Doyle’s examination of the heart with my classmates.
After tying her hair back & setting out her books, my teacher asked us if we had enjoyed the essay. All agreed we had, & we lapsed into a shallow discussion about things that popped out to us in the writing–beautiful imagery, particularly well-written phrases, things that lit the bulbs in our minds when we ran our eyes and fingers over them. We had prepared these answers, thinking we knew what she wanted to hear from us. We had not prepared an answer for her next question, however.
“Who looked up what joyas voladoras means?”
None of us answered–stuck in our collegiate mindset of dissect & analyze, we had forgotten to search for the meaning of those two little italicized words on the page. She wasn’t happy with us, & she let us know it. What she said that day has stayed with me:
“As young writers you can’t shy away from the things you don’t know. If you are too afraid to admit that you don’t know something for fear of seeming ignorant, you will be ignorant. LIfe is too short to be left in the dark. You must read everything you can get your hands on, look for new words, discover the nuggets of information buried deepest in the mud, for those are often the most precious.”
Before that moment, I had never associated research with knowledge (a very stupid oversight, I’ll admit). I had seen it as just a way to get credit on papers. I couldn’t see the merits of looking up things that I didn’t know because I had always associated this with the aspects of academia that I hated. To think of research as something that could bring me joy was an extremely foreign concept.
My teacher preached about the merits of research over the course of the year. The epigraph (if you want to call it that) at the beginning of this post comes from her, & its since became one of my favorite quotes to share with someone. She showed me that adding a dash of well-researched information into a poem could incite interest in my pieces while making those bulbs fire in the minds of my readers; for instance, take a look at Dorianne Laux’s Facts About the Moon. It begins with an interesting fact about the moon & then gracefully transitions into her own voice, her own point of writing the poem. Throughout the poem, she continually reminds us that she is writing a list of facts as well as a poem. It’s that kind of tactfully placed information that gets my blood pumpin’.
All of this talk about research comes after a few days of researching the processes of blacksmithing & armouring. I’m doing this research in order to craft a piece that talks about these processes with authority while also placing my own poetic spin on them–much like Laux does in Facts About the Moon. The piece will be for a dear friend of mine, so once I’ve gotten it
perfected to a point where I don’t hate looking at it anymore, I’ll post my draft here.
Thanks for taking this journey with me, reader. Lord knows I couldn’t make it on my own.
P.S. After class I went home & googled joyas voladoras, discovering that it meant “flying jewels” is Spanish. Has there ever been a better metaphor for the small, bright birds?