On self-assignment: Turn research into an adventure

Sometimes our writing asks us to step away from the page and into the real world.

Self-assignment

 

Writers often invent assignments for themselves in pursuit of better, richer writing. Some of these projects require taking to the road to talk to sources or to inhabit some story’s setting. Others lead to work in an Indiana greenhouse or a B&B in Wisconsin. Though the subjects that inspire them are wholly individual, variable self-directed approaches to writing fieldwork can guide others. To outline some of the obstacles and successes that can occur on these self-guided quests, I asked four writers with different styles across genre to share what they’ve learned on self-assignment:

Jean Harper’s first book, Rose City: A Memoir of Work, describes a divorce punctuated by lessons learned while working for rose hybridizer E.G. Hill.

Dinty W. Moore relays how he managed field research during time divided between being a writer, husband, father, editor of Brevity magazine, and professor at Ohio University. The triumph of his technique is apparent in the number of books he’s written or edited, including, among others, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Between Panic and Desire, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction.

Amy Pickworth, author of Bigfoot for Women, an interactive poetry collection embedded with hyperlinks to Bigfoot-related accounts, is now undertaking research into historical race relations in her hometown of Zanesville, Ohio.

Ira Sukrungruang is the co-editor of two anthologies concerning America’s obsession with fat and the author of two memoirs (Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai), a poetry collection (In Thailand It Is Night), and book of short stories (The Melting Season).

 

Why did you each decide to embark on your self-assignment?

Sukrungruang: Because I was teaching and juggling too many things at work. Because I needed mental time. Because the Buddhist in me was telling me to slow down and breathe. I give myself over to all projects. My brain was split into too many things, and when I sat down to write – write this book that required time and attention and care – I couldn’t stay focused.

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Harper: I’ve had the pleasure of being a resident at several wonderful places over the years – Yaddo, MacDowell, VCCA [Virginia Center for the Creative Arts] – and I love the energy and exchange of ideas among writers and artists. But I also value extended periods of silence and solitude to just think and work. Residencies have a different kind of energy, a more public face, so to speak – always someone to talk with, get distracted with, etc. So, periodically when I feel the need for that silence and solitude, I invent places to go to alone, either for research or for simply writing.

Pickworth: I work full-time and have a family, and I steal time for writing when I can. Right now I’m hitting that point in thinking about a project that I really want to spend uninterrupted time with, so I decided to arrange some time myself, rather than wait around for an organized retreat or residency.

 

Will you talk about how you strategize field research for your books?

Moore: I work at home, always have, so my travel is designed to gather information, attend events I want to write about, or interview people. It has been 24 years since I started research on my first book, and still I’ve never been to a writing retreat. I guest teach at weekend workshops sometimes, but I’ve never gone to a residency where a writer is given a room or cabin and just writes all morning.

I’ve never been fortunate enough to earn the sort of advance on royalties that allows one to take 6 months off from teaching, and my career as a nonfiction book author launched just about the time my daughter turned 3, so between the need to be back home to teach my classes and my desire to not abandon my family for large stretches of time, most of the research travel for my first two books was done over long weekends, and most of it was done by car. I once drove from State College, Pennsylvania, to Iowa City in one coffee-fueled day to do some interviews and turned around the next day to make the same drive again. My current book has taken me to Memphis and Indiana so far. I was able to fly to Memphis but still kept it to four days overall, including travel, because of my teaching obligations. I’d love the luxury some day of spending a month somewhere for a book project, but so far I haven’t managed it.

 

Where has self-assignment lead you, and how did you organize it beforehand?

Sukrungruang: For one of my retreats, I found this wonderful B&B in Sparta, Wisconsin. It had the classic red barn and grain silo, and it sat on seemingly endless rolling land. I was doing a summer book tour for Talk Thai, and I had about two weeks between readings, so I booked my time in the middle of Wisconsin, on this beautiful farm. I wanted a place with little distraction, not a city, and a place without television and good cell phone reception. I was also looking for a place to get some activity. I’m an avid disc golfer and the property had two courses, so this seemed the perfect match.

Harper: Most recently, I visited coastal New England for research on my new project: writing about three generations of women in one family. I had about four days, and knew I had to plan my time tightly in order to get the most out of it. So I made myself an itinerary for each day. Hour by hour, day by day. Where I would go, who I would talk to, what information I was looking for. That required careful planning, because in some cases I was making appointments with people I wanted to interview, research librarians, and those weird tiny museums that are only open for a couple of hours on a Friday. I wanted to get a lot accomplished, so I stuck to the itinerary as though it was holding me accountable. Planning for this trip began several months before I went.

Pickworth: The things I’m thinking and writing about are wrapped up in where I’m from, so I headed to Ohio. I went for four days, which was all I could arrange, but not nearly enough time. I organized my flight, my lodging, and a rental car, and I loosely prioritized my time before I got there. I had an A list and a B list of what I wanted to do and research. (I managed to do the A list but nothing on the B list.)

 

What was on your A and B list?

Pickworth: There were a couple of on-site research assignments related to local and family history that were important to do and an object that I needed to spend time with in a local museum, and I did those things. But there was another small museum and a few more familiar places that I wanted to visit, and those didn’t happen this time. Driving around and being there, however, allowed me to soak up the setting. Everyday, serendipitous details of place, of interactions with real, often complicated people – these aren’t things you can get from the internet.

 

Organized retreats and residencies can generate community connections as well as provide time and space to contemplate or complete projects. What provides these resources for you?

Moore: My first teaching job was at a school where there was one creative writer – me – so community was a real problem. I was at a campus of Penn State, which has locations all over Pennsylvania, so I quickly formed a community with other writers in the system, most of them two or three hours away. The AWP Conference was an important community-building activity for me as well. In the mid-‘90s, when the conference was still relatively tiny, I’d try to meet everyone, to jam in as many new contacts as possible. As for contemplation: I’m too busy most of the time.

 

Do you have a support network to keep you motivated or on track?

Moore: It has changed over time, except for my wife, Renita, who has always been there. I’ve also been lucky to have worked with some amazing (which means tough) editors.

Harper: Oh, absolutely yes. I have a wide and far-flung network of women writer friends whose minds I deeply admire and whose company I adore when we intermittently get together. We cheer each other on remotely by email or phone, and when we get together, it’s hours of intense conversation. I deeply value all of these women, and it’s like they are all cheering me on in my imagination. I feel beholden to all of them!

Sukrungruang: In traditional residencies, working with other writers and artists has been quite motivating. You feed off of their energy. It’s surprising sometimes how that works. It makes art not a solitary act, knowing other artists are working/suffering alongside of you.

The DIY is something else. What fed me was the work itself and the reading I was doing and the idea that, right now, I have no responsibility in the world except for this page.

 

Were funding opportunities available to help you manage expenses?

Pickworth: No, I didn’t get outside funding for this. I recently applied for a fellowship and wasn’t awarded it, and that was disappointing on a couple of levels, including that it would’ve covered a longer version – or a few versions – of this trip. But I decided to do it anyway and take on the expenses myself. It felt like a good investment in my work.

Creativity is a cyclical thing, and the timing of when you’re ready to write doesn’t always align with funding schedules. I really wanted some time to put down some of what was in my head and was fortunate that I was able to make that happen at the right time, even in a modest way.

Sukrungruang: My university helped fund some of the travel expenses for the residency in Sparta through a travel grant. Though the grant was generous, it was not nearly enough to cover the entire residency. More than half of it came out of pocket. But this was an undertaking I needed to do, with or without help.

Harper: I wrote a grant proposal to the Indiana Arts Commission for funds to support the trip. I also wrote a proposal to my dean for funds and was awarded that, too. I always look for funds in every place I can think of. If you’re affiliated with a university, as I am, that helps. Here in Indiana, there are various professional development funds I can tap into. Also, there may be sources outside the university that will support a faculty member’s research. Individual grants are, of course, really competitive, but if you don’t apply, you don’t get considered at all.

I also look for obscure little pots of money. For example, I’m going to do research in New Bedford this coming fall, and I found a research fellowship that provides housing. Over the years, for various projects, I’ve found money in all kinds of places: my local electricity cooperative, a county foundation, a newspaper-funded foundation, even a really helpful grocery chain that wanted to support a project I was doing. You just have to be alert all the time for who is giving out funds, large and small, and never be shy about asking questions, or applying.

 

Did you use any particular strategies to help manage your time during your self-assignment?

Sukrungruang: I woke up and wrote before brushing my teeth and eating. I wrote until I needed something to eat. Then I ate while writing. Then I read. I read A LOT. My typical day would be four to six hours writing, four hours reading, three hours working out or hiking. Sometimes I would go on long drives, no music, just wind and road. Repeat.

Pickworth: I could’ve been more relentless about that, but I also wanted to be open to that specific place and the things it might show me. So I wrote in the evening, after I’d come back from getting dinner, and in the morning before breakfast, and the rest of the day was about being in the community, and exploring, and researching. I took a lot of notes, and I’m still working off them – and the draft text I wrote – several months later.

I stayed at a B&B, and I’m glad about that. I was very interested [in] learning more about that house (it had been a former Underground Railroad stop), the family who had lived there in the 19th century, and the African-American woman who owns it now. The arrangement didn’t always allow the unbroken time alone I probably would’ve had if I’d stayed at a motel – I was sharing someone’s home – but through my host I also met people and had conversations I wouldn’t have otherwise, and that was terrific.

Harper: It’s like doing any job: you get up in the morning earlier than you really want to, have breakfast, get to work. Break for lunch (or eat at your desk, in your car, etc.), work late, stop for supper, [and] then review your notes, watch a little TV, and get to bed on time. It’s really pretty unromantic, but who said it, [Gustave] Flaubert? “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

 

Are you naturally self-disciplined with regard to writing?

Sukrungruang: I don’t have a set time. I write when I write. I write in short bursts. I write between other work. It’s not effective, and after a while, I need space. I need to be Ira the writer, and only Ira the writer. This is the reason I find spaces for myself. This is when I take myself far away.

Moore: Yes. I’ve been a butt-in-the-chair, five-days-a-week writer since I started seriously.

Pickworth: Hahaha: No. I can be exacting, and I do enjoy revising something to the point where I feel real conviction about it, and I suppose that’s self-discipline. That said, there are no rituals or time constraints I impose on myself. I work in spurts, around the edges, whenever I have something to put down or tinker with.

Harper: Nope. I’m constantly distracted by solitaire and The Voice and trashy magazine headlines and all the other dippy static out there. I just have to almost physically turn my attention to the writing itself. Sit at the desk. Go to the library. Do the interview. Go back to the desk. Type out the notes. I suppose that’s discipline, but what it really is, I think, is making myself get distracted by the work, until before I know it I’m deep into the work, and it’s much more interesting than all that other stuff.

 

What has working independently taught you?

Moore: What I’ve learned is that research – leaving your comfortable chair and going somewhere new, like a chicken-wing eating contest, an atheists convention, or meeting with an internet-addicted college student – pays off 98 percent of the time.

I’ve also learned that people love to tell you their stories. I remain shy when it comes to the first cold call or email, the one that says, “I’m writing a book, and can we meet, and can you tell me things?,” but invariably the person on the other end says “sure,” and when I meet them they are more than willing to talk, even to the point of sharing embarrassing situations and uncomfortable memories. The hard part is asking. The rest is much easier.

 

What are the challenges or drawbacks to working without the framework of an assignment?

Harper: The person you will disappoint the most when you fail is yourself. That can be a lonely conversation.

Moore: I can be quirky. I can go for what amuses me or seems odd.

Sukrungruang: Distraction. Sometimes it’s good to be distracted. Sometimes it’s good to do or think about something that isn’t your project or a book. Sometimes, when you are alone for a long time, you begin to miss companionship and camaraderie.

Pickworth: Finding and budgeting the time and money, which can feel selfish, can mean a lot of bargaining with the other parts of my life.

 

What are the rewards of working within a self-constructed framework?

Sukrungruang: This feeling of losing yourself to the thing you love to do.

Pickworth: There’s so much excitement in discovery, in being off leash and chasing a good idea down the rabbit hole. I left Ohio with a stack of writing I wouldn’t have otherwise, and adding to, and subtracting from, and revising that will keep me busy for a while.

Harper: That’s the converse: the person you will delight and gratify most when you succeed is also yourself. That conversation I like having. It probably should also be as solitary – the reward is in the work itself, not external applause. When you get it right on the page, you know it. There’s a transcendent feeling there.

Here’s an example: Recently, I spent an afternoon in a tiny research library, pouring over old newspaper clippings and reports, reading deeply into an incident from over 60 years ago. At some point, I crossed over from present to past. I was in that time. But I didn’t truly realize how deep I had gone until I finally stepped out of the library, into a bright New England afternoon. I was stopped short by the light, the color, the present-ness of everything. It was stunning, really, and if I had been with someone else, I would have been talking, listening. I would have missed that moment. It wasn’t an epiphany, it was more like a confirmation: This is right. Keep going.

 

Amy Wright is the author of Everything in the Universe, Cracker Sonnets, and five chapbooks. She is also nonfiction editor of Zone 3 Press and coordinator of creative writing at Austin Peay State University. Some of her writing is archived at online at awrightawright.com.

 

 

 

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