Arguably it’s the most important part of the writing process. How can you write about something if you know nothing about it? That old writing tip “write what you know” is always apt — you don’t want to look stupid, do you?!
But how about other ways you might look in the age of the internet and having access-all-areas? If I were to go through the things I’ve looked up in the name of research it could paint a pretty messed-up picture…
For one short story I had to research the job of an embalmer, how a cadaver appears and feels, how the process of embalming works, etc. For my work-in-progress novel American. Porn Star. President. (about a porn-addicted journalist), I’ve looked up almost every genre there is on major porn sites, and what the world of the porn industry is like, from on-set slang to bloody company rivalries. (Think that’s commitment? Some writers have acted in adult film for their stories — now that’s dedication!) For a short story about a disgruntled employee of a corporate giant, I delved into self-immolation, and came across some deeply harrowing images, and incredibly tragic cases. For my screenplay Let’s Talk About Sex, I researched the most comic and weird sex-related injuries (thinking about it still makes me wince).
One, like Jake Gyllenhaal above, could look at this and reach the conclusion that I’m a sex-addicted, cadaver-infatuated nutjob who’s about to set myself on fire in a protest against my exploitative employer (must… crush… capitalism…).
So, is all this research essential when it comes to whatever project it is that you’re working on?
Well, yes… It’s like the method actor approach, although how far an actor — or a writer — would go is another thing. If I’m writing about a murderer I’m hardly going to go out and hack someone to death. But I would likely go to our all-knowing, omnipotent friend (or, arguably, foe) the Internet, and read about individual cases and the perpetrators… What was their mindset? How did they rationalise doing something so abhorrent? Did they even rationalise it? What was their background? How were they raised? What did their day-to-day look like?
I think it’s a part of us, though — this curiosity, this need to know… We’re voyeuristic… Or, as David Fincher said: people are perverts. We’re forever curious about the private (or not-so-private) lives of others. We obsess over individuals like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. We make celebrities out of some of the craziest people who’ve set foot on this planet. We create sensations around porn stars (Jenna Jameson, Linda Lovelace, Ron Jeremy, John Holmes, James Deen, to name a few). Not that I’m saying porn stars are monsters like Manson and Bundy, of course. To be clear, that’s not what I’m saying at all! I admire adult performers for having the balls to do what they do… pun possibly intended.
But what do they have in common? Well, they’re the outliers, right? And we’re always interested in the people who go against the grain of “normal” society, be it by doing something awful (Manson and Bundy) or something unusual/outrageous (adult performers). We’re forever fascinated by the ones who don’t do the “normal” thing, because, for the most part, we’re surrounded by normalcy; the mundanity of everyday life.
But coming back to research and writing, what does it all mean for the writer? The one who opens the doors to the often excessive, regularly fucked-up realities of this crazy world? Speaking from personal experience, my research has led me to having some odd, some adventurous, and some deeply disturbing dreams (including being pulled across the bed by a demonic spirit flashing before my eyes. And yes, I do have night terrors… I scream in my sleep sometimes. It’s ridiculous, and a little embarrassing, but it has scared my girlfriend in the middle of the night, and that’s definitely a consolation. It’s okay, she thinks it’s funny)…
Anyway, the great F. Scott Fitzgerald said this of the writer:
“Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.”
For me, that’s a perfect — and profound — way to describe a writer. The first time I read it, it simply made sense. I’ve definitely found myself feeling not-like-myself after writing a certain scene or a specific character, and that’s sometimes difficult to shake off immediately. Haruki Murakami has made reference to this in an interview with The New Yorker:
“When I’m writing a novel, I wake up around four in the morning and go to my desk and start working. That happens in a realistic world. I drink real coffee. But, once I start writing, I go somewhere else. I open the door, enter that place, and see what’s happening there. I don’t know — or I don’t care — if it’s a realistic world or an unrealistic one. I go deeper and deeper, as I concentrate on writing, into a kind of underground. While I’m there, I encounter strange things. But while I’m seeing them, to my eyes, they look natural. And if there is a darkness in there, that darkness comes to me, and maybe it has some message, you know? I’m trying to grasp the message. So I look around that world and I describe what I see, and then I come back. Coming back is important. If you cannot come back, it’s scary. But I’m a professional, so I can come back.”
Coming back, even if it’s from the “real” world, is imperative. And, as Murakami alludes, it takes skill: he’s a professional, he can come back. He’s trained himself to come back. As made evident by my dreams, clearly I’m still in training.
But to end with Fitzgerald’s above quote in mind, maybe being good has been made easier today with the existence of the Internet, which allows us to do more research without having to leave the house or office. We’re not restricted to our first-hand experiences and our sometimes limited imaginations or book collections; we can delve into these worlds and mindsets instantly using the collective consciousness that is the Internet.
We can write what we know, although we might have preferred life when we didn’t know it.
Anyway, I hear the call for last orders again.
Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .
Header image by Becca Tapert on Unsplash