Monday Writing Motivation: You have to dive deep to find the truth
Research underpins many powerful stories. Think for instance of Manhattan Beach, a fabulous novel by Jennifer Egan, set before and during World War II, in the naval yards of Manhattan Beach, New York. The heroine of the story is a girl at the start of the novel, who grows up with a passion for diving – and becomes a naval diver whose job during the war is to repair vessels damaged beneath the waterline by enemy action.
The suits divers wear are cumbersome. Anna’s suit weighs considerably more than she does – which is fine, underwater, but almost unbearable above the surface.
Egan’s renowned for the research she puts into each of her novels. Research excites her. She enjoys simply finding out about a new area of experience. When she wrote Look at Me, everyone assumed she’d been a professional model at some stage in her life. When she wrote A Visit from the Goon Squad, people immediately jumped to the conclusion that she had ties to the music industry.
But her ease in each of these environments comes not from experience – she’s never dived in her life (although she did, for Manhattan Beach don the monstrous Mark 5 diving suit used by navy divers 80 years ago) – but from research.
Research is undeniably important to writers in order for them to be able to create the worlds their characters inhabit.
You might, for instance, want to set a story in a beach town that you visited repeatedly as a child. Well, it’s not good enough to rely on memory. You really have to go back to it – in person, or via Google Earth. You have to pore over maps of the town, consult family photographs, talk to siblings who accompanied you on your holidays. You might have to consult travel guides, memoirs set in the area, and so on.
So far so standard.
But there’s another kind of research that every writer owes him or herself. Without it, I don’t believe any of us is equipped to write anything of any real value. This research requires that you take a deep dive, not into the waters off Manhattan Beach, but into yourself.
I’ve recently written about the writer’s duty to know himself. But let’s look at a practical way of achieving that ideal.
You want to investigate your own… hypocrisy, let’s say. Some negative aspect of your character that, for the most part, you’d prefer to ignore, or even deny. But for the purposes of research, and in order to become a better writer, you set aside the shame you feel at acknowledging these facets of yourself, and dig in.
You recall the last instance in which you were aware of acting hypocritically. It’s easy to condemn the behaviour of racists and homophobes and sexists. But what about you? What easy assumptions do you make about people of other races, or women (if you’re a man) or men (if you’re a woman)?
In the interests of better understanding what it is to be prejudiced, anatomise your own prejudices, however painful this might be.
And then – and here’s the clincher – write it down. I often say, in jest, that I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say. There’s more than a kernel of truth in saying that you won’t know what you feel until you write it down.
Writing down the difficult truths about yourself is to bring to the surface hitherto unacknowledged dimensions of what it means to be human.
Research comes in two flavours. The first is the sort of research that can be fun, that can yield anecdotes aplenty that you’ll be able to share at your dinner table. The second is more difficult. This is the research that plumbs the depths of your vulnerabilities, your fears, and your weaknesses. Both are necessary.