A Recipe for Illusion: Memory, Imagination, Research
by George Rabasa
Excerpted from "Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer's Workshop"
Look into your favorite novelist's head and you will almost certainly find soup for brains. Sure, a few million brain cells are assembled in a quivering gray mass, but this conventional appearance is deceiving. In contrast, you can assume that the brain of your accountant or rocket scientist is nicely organized. As in a toolbox, there are nooks and slots for the different functions of the intellect.
The creative writer unwittingly manages to make a mess of the ordinary thinking process: memory, imagination, and something approximating objective reality are all mooshed together into a dark, rich stew. This brew has been cooking so long, for a lifetime anyway, that the different ingredients have blended into one savory potage--you can't tell where carrots give way to peas to beans to broccoli to squash and turnips. Furthermore, the fragrant mess is being constantly stirred, the recipe changing, if not hour by hour, certainly from one week to the next: memory agitates, imagination warps, new stuff is learned and enters the mixture all the time.
When the pursuit of new knowledge becomes systematic and purposeful, rather than a random gathering of tidbits, it's called research. And research is serious business in the writing of fiction. So serious, in fact, that most stories of whatever length will require at least a little. Research is as much a part of the process as memory and imagination. When I'm asked what an aspiring writer should study in college, I advise going easy on creative writing and literature, saving time for history, geography, biology, anthropology, Spanish. Dig up courses that teach stuff. Learn the names of trees and flowers and birds. Words like forsythia, eucalyptus, and dove-winged parsifano are downright poetic. The more stuff a writer learns, the richer the soup.
For me, research and writing are commingled in an adventure of discovery. Just as I sometimes begin a story without knowing exactly where it's going, I often do research with no clear idea of what I'll do with the knowledge. I don't disagree that writers should write what they know. We should also write about what interests us.
In the pursuit of the exotic and the merely curious, I have encountered odd books I otherwise wouldn't have read (How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland), surfed the Web (www.sephardim.com), and watched embarrassing television (yeah, Springer). I've flown, hitched, hiked, and rafted. I've mined a lode of experience from my parents and my children, old friends and new acquaintances. I've stood awestruck in ancient mosques and cathedrals, prisons, brothels, and markets. I've chatted up cops and robbers, pathologists, shrinks, vets, herbalists, swamis, divas and their voice teachers, the inevitable taxi driver, and my haircutter, Scary Stephie. Not a bad range of conversational encounters for someone shyer than Keillor.
Learning stuff is the easy part. Overloading a piece of writing with new knowledge turns some historical novels (not those by A.S. Byatt or Gabriel García Márquez) into vaguely academicky distractions from story and character. To produce the higher truth that good literature aspires to, the magic of research pays off in the details. More precisely, in the telling detail that rings so true that only someone, be it narrator or character, who had been there at that precise moment, would know--e.g., a soldier's rotting boot, the weight of a bird on your finger, the smell of valerian root.
There is something thrilling about the writer creating the illusion of truth with unquestioned authority. We may know a contemporary writer was not alive during the Middle Ages or the American Civil War or the final game of the 1946 World Series, and yet a character behaves so credibly, a place is rendered so concrete, that doubts vanish; the reader believes. If an untold number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, the angel that dances on a telling detail can endow fiction with a sense of the miraculous. This is not about deception; it's about reaching for the wisdom distilled in the best fiction and poetry.
Sometimes research is done after writing, as a way to verify what has been remembered or imagined. In my novel Floating Kingdom, I envisioned an outlaw family living on an island in the Rio Grande, in a house positioned on a ledge halfway up a limestone canyon high above the river. This image haunted me for more than a year as I worked on the initial drafts.
Then, I took a trip along the Rio Grande in order to fine-tune my sense of the landscape. As my wife, Juanita, and I drove along the escarpment, there were no signs of human habitation. The actual landscape with the slow muddy river coiling between walls of glistening stone confirmed what I had imagined. But I despaired of finding anyone who could possibly want to live in such an austere environment. My novel was set in a particular house turned into an autonomous kingdom by the family patriarch. It appeared that no such dwelling could exist here. My whole premise was predicated on an absurdity. My precious three-hundred pages were being eaten by the dogs of plausibility.
Then, at a bend in the road, as we climbed higher along the canyon walls, I saw it! The house, a boxy two-story of gray brick with barred windows, fronted by a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, with a chained and padlocked gate, a black Ford Galaxy on blocks, a shed to one side festooned with hubcaps, an unfriendly dog. It was all there, and then some. I was giddy with the power of imagination, the magic of reality, the mystery of memory. Out of the soup had emerged my hero's house. I stuck my camera out the window and snapped a picture before hastily driving off.
My last point is that as much as I value solid research, the novelist shouldn't let reality get in the way of a good story. Facts are overrated. A writer's view is necessarily personal. The rivers in the landscape bend to his or her purpose. The lives of the rich and famous can take delightful turns in the service of fictional mayhem and scandal. On the other hand, if you're writing about opera singers, death row inmates, crooked accountants, or native speakers of Catalan, you'd better get it absolutely right. You'll be surprised how many readers you have when the mail comes in deriding you for inaccuracies in the depiction of brain surgery, tightrope walking, or murder by gunfire, poison, or pillow.
As creative writers, we bring to our experience of life an intense, almost privileged perspective. The world around us is livelier than it is for ordinary mortals. The play and display of nature and the vagaries of human behavior should be approached with a mixture of reverence and scrutiny. Waiting in the grocery line, interviewing for a job you don't want, sitting for three hours in the middle seat of NWA's flight 199--all these are moments that rise into enriching experiences. The creative writer pays attention. A finer appreciation of the world inevitably brings greater self-knowledge. To know life, even with all its warts and smudges, is to love it. This explains why writers are such interesting people with lots of admiring friends, and why even just-okay writers also make great lovers. This is all true. I've done the research.
The Ten Exhortations for the Literary Researcher
1. Go where no writer has gone before.
2. Don't feel you have to use everything you've learned.
3. You don't even have to use anything you've learned.
4. Keep in mind that someone out there reading your book knows more about your subject than you do.
5. Don't worry too much about that person.
6. Don't confuse facts with details. Facts are stones. Details are wings. The astute researcher smells out the telling detail like a pig rooting after truffles.
7. Hang on to notes, clippings, book titles, photos, souvenirs, postcards, road maps, hotel receipts (good for taxes, if you ever make any money).
8. Whenever you don't know something when you're writing, make it up. You'll be surprised how true it is when you check later.
9. Don't forget to check later.
10. Research does not make the story. The story makes the story.
George Rabasa (georgerabasa.com) is the author of The Wonder Singer (2008), and Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb (forthcoming), both with Unbridled Books. This excerpt comes from Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer's Workshop, a collection of writers on writing from the Loft Literary Center, published by Milkweed Editions.