The Funny Thing About Research

Ahhhh, research. Arguably 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 was to go through the things I’ve looked up in the name of research it would paint a pretty messed-up list…

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 PornHub, and what the world of the porn industry is like, from on-set slang to company rivalries. Some writers have even acted in adult film for their stories — now that’s dedication! For a short story about a protesting employee of a corporate giant, I delved into self-immolation, and have come across some harrowing 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 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 protest at my exploitative employer (must. crush. capitalism.)…

So, is all this research essential when it comes to whatever project it is one’s working on?

In my opinion, 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 attack someone. 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 that way… Or, as David Fincher said: people are perverts. We’re forever curious about the private lives of others. We obsess over individuals like Charles Manson and Aileen Wuornos (monsters arguably created by other monsters, but that’s for another blog post). We make celebrities out of some of the craziest people who have ever existed. 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 Wuornos, of course. To be clear, that’s not what I’m saying at all! I admire porn stars 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 Wuornos) or something unusual (adult performers). We’re always fascinated by the ones who don’t do the “normal” thing.

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, often fucked-up realities of the 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).

The great F. Scott Fitzgerald said this of the writer:

“Writer’s 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, I’m still in training.

But to end in relation to Fitzgerald’s above quote, 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; we can delve into these worlds and mindsets using the collective consciousness that is the Internet.

We can write what we know, even if we 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 . . .

Chekhov’s Letter to his Brother Nikolai

 

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s letter to his older brother Nikolai – which features his 8 Qualities of Cultured People – has done the rounds, but there’s no harm in sharing it again for any of you who may have missed it. I come back to it regularly, for it’s always an enjoyable read. It was penned in March, 1886, when Anton was 26, before he had written the first of his four major plays which would have a profound impact on the theatre not only in Russia, but around the globe.

Enjoy the words of the master dramatist and short story writer below.

 

Moscow, 1886.

My little Zabelin,

I’ve been told that you have taken offense at gibes Schechtel and I have been making. The faculty of taking offense is the property of noble souls alone, but even so, if it is all right to laugh at Ivanenko, me, Mishka and Nelly, then why is it wrong to laugh at you? It’s unfair. However, if you’re not joking and really do feel you’ve been offended, I hasten to apologize.

People only laugh at what’s funny or what they don’t understand. Take your choice.

The latter of course is more flattering, but—alas!—to me, for one, you’re no riddle. It’s not hard to understand someone with whom you’ve shared the delights of Tatar caps, Voutsina, Latin and, finally, life in Moscow. And besides, your life is psychologically so uncomplicated that even a nonseminarian could understand it. Out of respect for you let me be frank. You’re angry, offended…but it’s not because of my gibes or of that good-natured chatterbox Dolgov. The fact of the matter is that you’re a decent person and you realize that you’re living a lie. And, whenever a person feels guilty, he always looks outside himself for vindication: the drunk blames his troubles, Putyata blames the censors, the man who bolts from Yakimanka Street with lecherous intent blames the cold in the living room or gibes, and so on. If I were to abandon the family to the whims of fate, I would try to find myself an excuse in Mother’s character or my blood spitting or the like. It’s only natural and pardonable. It’s human nature, after all. And you’re quite right to feel you’re living a lie. If you didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have called you a decent person. When decency goes, well, that’s another story. You become reconciled to the lie and stop feeling it.

You’re no riddle to me, and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous. You’re nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we’re stupid, and we’re ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn’t that so?

You often complain to me that people “don’t understand” you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault.

As your brother and intimate, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand. I value them highly and have only the greatest respect for them. If you like, I can even prove how I understand you by enumerating them. In my opinion you are kind to the point of fault, magnanimous, unselfish, you’d share your last penny, and you’re sincere. Hate and envy are foreign to you, you are open-hearted, you are compassionate with man and beast, you are not greedy, you do not bear grudges, and you are trusting. You are gifted from above with something others lack: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for there is only one artist for every two million people on earth. It places you in a very special position: you could be a toad or a tarantula and you would still be respected, because talent is its own excuse.

You have only one failing, the cause of the lie you’ve been living, your troubles, and your intestinal catarrh. It’s your extreme lack of culture. Please forgive me, but veritas magis amicitiae. The thing is, life lays down certain conditions. If you want to feel at home among intellectuals, to fit in and not find their presence burdensome, you have to have a certain amount of breeding. Your talent has brought you into their midst. You belong there, but…you seem to yearn escape and feel compelled to waver between the cultured set and your next-door neighbors. It’s the bourgeois side of you coming out, the side raised on birch thrashings beside the wine cellar and handouts, and it’s hard to overcome, terribly hard.

To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed.

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not.

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date.

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one.

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious.

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you’re going to do is bolt out again a week later.

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious.

Trips back and forth to Yakimanka Street won’t help. You’ve got to drop your old way of life and make a clean break. Come home. Smash your vodka bottle, lie down on the couch and pick up a book. You might even give Turgenev a try. You’ve never read him.

You must swallow your pride. You’re no longer a child. You’ll be thirty soon. It’s high time!

I’m waiting… We’re all waiting…

Yours,
A. Chekhov

 

There you go. Now, I’m hearing last orders, so . . . I’m off .

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Source: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/07/every-hour-is-precious.html

For a comprehensive selection of Chekhov’s work, visit www.antonchekhov.org

Snuggling Up to Self-Doubt

If someone were to ask me, “why do you write?” I’d have to respond with something along the lines of, “Well, why do you eat?”

Writing is something that I have to do. Or, rather, it’s something that I feel is essential to my well-being, and to the well-being of others: If I don’t eat, I’ll eventually kick the bucket. If I don’t write, I’ll eventually kick someone, or at least become quite difficult to be around.

So, I write short stories, I write short scripts, I write feature-length screenplays, I write copy for ads, and I’ve just written a novel. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of those short scripts turned into short films, and one of those feature screenplays made into a feature film. Next on the list is finding a publisher for that novel.

But then there’s that voice that whispers in your ear every time you’re revising what you’ve just written, or perusing the manuscript you’ve spent months, maybe a year, maybe years labouring over. That voice sounds the same to us all, and we call it Self-Doubt.

I mean, how do you know if your writing’s good or not before you share it with the world? Before you share that latest blog post, before you direct people to your latest short story, before you approach agents politely begging them to read your damn manuscript! The simple answer is: you don’t.

Not really.

For most writers I’ve spoken to or read about, Self-Doubt has always been by their side, breathing down their neck as they type away. Bukowski lamented that “the bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have selfdoubt.” Zadie Smith says that when it comes to the writer’s work, satisfaction will never arrive, no matter how long they’re willing to wait out in the cold for it. And Virginia Woolf opined that the writer “could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

However, I think you do know when you’ve made something as good as you feel you can possibly make it. That’s the best you can hope for. But Self-Doubt is something that tends to be there. Like it or lump it, it’s there, and it’s going to be there, like your partner’s morning breath.

For me, Self-Doubt will be a morning fog that will never fully clear. Confidence does grow as you develop your writing skills, as you read more books, study more writers, and write, write and write. You become more assured of your own work when you’ve finally found your style, when you can finally say “this is how I write.”

But Self-Doubt isn’t planning on walking out on you. It’s not going to disappear, apart from the few times it needs to wander off and badger the other writer a few blocks from your place. So, if you’re waiting for it to leave, stop waiting. Grab a blanket, and grab Self-Doubt. You’re a couple — try make an effort to get along.

And don’t forget to snuggle every now and then.

Until next time . . . I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar.