By Nicholas A. B. Siegel (Contributor)
One of the many useful clichés we often hear as writers is to “write what you know.” I had a professor once who told me that he would teach that to his writing students, and they would respond with, “but all we know about is writing.” I’ve often heard it suggested, and I agree, that this rule should be amended to read, “write what you know or what you’d like to know,” but that opens the door to a new potential problem—endless and all-consuming research.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to try something different, and (like most people painted on the walls in Barnes & Noble, Father John Misty, or many of the young men and women my age who sit around in the coffee shops I haunt), I decided to write a novel. I began work on it, and it quickly became a conglomeration of three different subjects that I’ve always been interested in but have never been an expert on. My research has included the draft resistance movement and draft dodgers of the Vietnam War, how to hop freight trains and travel the United States while avoiding the many hazards of the rails, and fortune telling (tarot card reading, palmistry, numerology, astrology, etc…).
My research began, as it should, with books. I found a great memoir about an investigative journalist who rode the rails in the 80s to experience hobo culture first-hand, a book on palmistry, one on the tarot, and a few on draft resistance. Then I had the amazing and incredibly enlightening opportunity to interview one of my favorite musicians, Chad Stokes, on his experiences hopping freight trains while he was on tour with his band, State Radio.
All of this gave me a basic understanding of the subjects I wanted to work with, but as I continued to work, trying in vain to get words on the page every day, I realized I was spending more time researching than I was writing. I was procrastinating writing my novel by thinking about what my novel was about. It was the most counter-intuitive feeling, and I had to consciously stop myself a few times so I could get back to the actual composition.
As writers, we need to realize that our primary goal is to write, not to talk about writing, research what we’re writing about, or write about writing (as I’m doing now). Of course, we do need some level of authority on our chosen subject matters, but as anyone who has ever written fiction knows, it’s the easiest task in the world to come up with excuses to keep us away from the page, and the excuses get even easier when we feel like our novels are benefiting from what we’re doing when we aren’t writing.
I believe young writers, myself included, are obsessed with authority. That it makes our work weaker, because instead of slaving over the sentences, paragraphs, language, story arcs, and characters, we fall too hard for our settings. It’s almost like working on a painting and ending up with gorgeous, detailed scenery occupied by a bunch of blurry people doing blurry things.
Research is necessary during any creative endeavor, and having said all this, I still realize there is a lot I need to learn before I’ll be able to pull my novel together. But 30,000 words into a draft I envision being somewhere around 100,000, priorities need to be shifted from striving for perfection to doing what I set out to accomplish in the first place, writing a novel, and writing it well. The trick is to manage the balance between thinking and feeling. Like Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Nicholas A. B. Siegel is a writer living in Louisville, KY who holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. He has worked as an editor for the teaching platform, Antler, and as a contributor to the guidebook, Wander Louisville. He is currently working on his first novel.