Saturday, January 20, 2007

Experience Vs. Research Vs. My Sitting on My Ass and Doing Nothing

It is certainly a measure of the writer’s mentality when he or she starts to wish that they’d had a childhood trauma, simply so they could write about it.

I don’t mean that literally, of course. The case of the boy who was kidnapped and disappeared for four years in St. Louis isn’t something I would want to have endured, for instance. But the wack part of my brain keeps thinking this: it would make awesome material for a book.

In the otherwise loathsome movie “Happiness,” there is a funny scene in which a poet, who has gained notoriety through her series of poems about being raped (“Rape at 11,” “Rape at 12,” “Rape at 13…”) admits that she is really a fraud.

“Who am I kidding?” she thinks, paging through her book. “I’ve never been raped.” This leads to her trying to arrange being raped, for material, as it were.

I’m not envious of writers like Augusten Burroughs, who made literary (and financial) hay out of a twisted childhood. Nor is it a wise thing to even suggest that writers need to have such experiences to write about them — fiction or otherwise — for I imagine that you would have a bevy of them read this and say, “I have to become a heroin junkie for research, damnit!”

Research, as opposed to experience, is a different matter. Of not what we have lived, I’ve always found that “doing research” for a novel has always been one of the odder facets of writing. You’re learning about somebody else’s life so you can write about them as a fictional character. Or put another way: why the hell do I need to learn about something I’m going to make up, anyway?

The master

Wife is a fiend when it comes to research; I am Mr. TK. I’ll write something and to hell if it’s accurate or not. I’ll write that the Czar of Pittsburgh freed the Serfs of Finland in 1478, because I can always change it later. If it’s wrong, who cares, because I made up the whole damn thing anyway.

The Internet has made a joke out of research, to some degree. We can type in “mass murderer” and “early bird special” and learn about all the serial killers over the age of 75. But that doesn’t really get us in the mind of the codger per se, and I imagine that one would have to interview such a person, read psychology text, or hang out in nursing homes or Shoneys. If you were writing a book about such a person, that is.

Perhaps because I am lazy except in matters of rationalization, I’ve always felt that the mania for research can go too far. The man who is often credited with being the über-reporter in these matters is Emile Zola, who hung out with striking coal miners and wrote “Germinal,” and while he is acknowledged to bringing a new level of realism to fiction, I don’t envision many people rushing out to their favorite Left Bank bookstore and asking for "Germinal" these days except when there's a strike in France, which actually means Zola's heirs are doing quite nicely.

On the other hand, “Madame Bovary” seems to have flowered directly from Flaubert’s brain, and we know that The Story of Emma B. gets just a tad more attention than Zola’s tale of the grimy, unfortunate dudes in the coal shafts.

Or take “Lolita.” Despite the pedophilia, despite the lushness of his prose, despite the Europe-Meets-America tension in Humbert Humbert’s life in the U.S.A., “Lolita” is essentially a road trip novel, a travelogue of which Nabokov drew from his own experience.

“Wow! Looks swank,” Lolita says upon laying eyes upon The Enchanted Hunters, his “vulgar darling” all naïve to Humbert’s faux suavity (methinks Humbert Humbert is the original Eurotrash). Nabokov makes several references to Flaubert in “Lolita” (so says "The Annotated 'Lolita,'" because really, folks, do you think I'm smart enough to make the connection on my own?), and if the circumstances of Emma Bovary and Delores Haze are wildly divergent, they both end in tragedy, a sense of which no amount of research can prepare one to express with words.

Back to the drawing board

I guess I am writing all this for the mere reason that I am coming face-to-face with the reality that if I am to continue trying to write fiction, I will need to get rid of this nasty habit of making stuff up and hoping that it’s right. (And I thought about writing a book about that kid who was kidnapped for four years, despite his opportunities to split, which makes me wonder just what happened…)

And if I want to write non-fiction — even first-person essays about Wife and Son and such — I’ll need to do some research, even interviews.

Uh, any volunteers? Feel free to e-mail me.