Laura Valeri, "What You Don’t Know May Hurt Your Writing: The Ever Elusive Fairy of Research in Fiction."
Recently, a student in my fiction class declared with outraged authority, “We don’t do enough fiction here.” He referred accusingly to the first assignment of the semester, which requires them to write a realist story based on one of several oral narratives that I supply on the first day of class. This is a difficult multi-steps research assignment that pushes my fledgling fictioneers to explore the lives of real people. The narratives are rich with emotions and nuances beyond an average college student’s experience: listening to them for material prevents my student from trivializing characters and from falling back on the familiar college relationship story, or the abortion story, for material.
My student’s reaction to a research-based assignment is not surprising to me: it reflects the many contradictions that fiction writers have to contend with when they are forced to consider the role of research in their work. First, there is the misconception that since fiction is made up, research isn’t necessary. Yet there is the mythologized view of the fiction writer (like Hemingway) who spends his winters hunting lions in Africa and his summers writing authoritatively about it; which leads us to the old and much misused adage, write what you know, that seems to suggest, at least to some, that the material of one’s own experience is sometimes the only appropriate material for fiction. And finally there is a certain degree of confusion, both within the professional industry and among fledgling writers, about how much responsibility fiction bears to truth, with the ethical and legal dilemmas concerning the source and attainment of the subject material seldom discussed satisfactorily even in graduate workshops.
In fact, not long ago a respected colleague who writes creative nonfiction confessed that if the difference between fiction and nonfiction can sometimes be elusive, she believes that calling it nonfiction is tantamount to taking responsibility for its truth. Her comment, spoken as though it conclusively ended any debate on the matter, suggests that the brand of fiction provides a scapegoat obviously unknown to the long list of writers who have been sued for their material, in some cases, even when the author openly acknowledged his source (see Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code lawsuit). In other words, the question of research in fiction, and how one goes about getting ideas for it and acknowledging her sources, is still a fairly exotic animal even to those of us who write it every day; no wonder then my students’ outrage.
When I first began writing creatively, write what you know was a reassurance that even a middle class immigrant from Italy had material worth the attention of a writing class, but when I began to pursue writing professionally that old adage no longer sounded like the absolutions to my sin of comfortable middle class, but rather as an ominous warning against writing past the warn-out charm of metropolitan America engaged in dysfunctional relationships; write what you know seemed to forewarn my doom to be a writer of contemporary domestic fiction without hope of expansion into other subjects. Moreover, Write what you know turned into a deeply toned accusation of my lack of experience with the kind of research that would have granted me access to the types of subcultures or “fictional worlds” that are touted as the best material for novels: my introspective, shy nature and lack of financial resources seemed to preclude my ever slashing through the jungle of Guatemala with a machete between my teeth, and this fact doomed me to accept that I would never be the kind of novelist I aspired to be.
I think too often the research that fiction writers undertake and the ethical and moral nuances they must affront are overlooked in favor of discourse that evaluates these challenges from the perspective of the creative nonfiction writer alone, and as a result the challenges and methods of research are neglected in fiction workshops even by the best and most well-meaning teachers. Back in graduate school, for example, one of my former teachers offered his own alternative to write what you know: what you don’t know would make a great story. But his tantalizing invitation to explore unknown subjects for material, unaccompanied by detailed research advice, only served to augment my anxieties: the write what you know adage had paired up with what you don’t know would make a great story to terrorize me with the prospect that I’d have to plan to sell my body for sex and be homeless for a year so I could write realistically about a ring of underage prostitution, or that I’d have to limp to India and live among lepers in order to best interpret the nuances of a life lived as a Hindu ascetic.
I didn’t know where to even start contemplating such projects: in most of my graduate courses research roughly translated to browsing through databases and indexes, citing MLA articles for literary analyses. There was no class on how to organize an expedition to Machu Pichu. The well-meaning advice of my teachers was effectively silencing me before I even picked up a pen, especially when I considered the investment of time and the financial constraints of living life as a teacher and aspiring writer. Personal safety, especially as a woman, seemed to limit the possibility that I’d ever write “realistically” about anything more foreign than the usual current day middle class relationships that have already been claimed by authors like Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. The publicity talks of writers who detail their experiences living for a year in exotic places or sneaking to emergency room surgeries to glean out the gritty details of their fiction further function to intimidate and silence aspiring writers who may have the willingness and imagination but not the resources to undertake such enterprising projects.
I was one of them. However, I have a long history of self-sabotage. So, I wrote all the same about increasingly foreign subjects: at first, even as I wrote about middle class immigrants, I did so from the perspective of Cuban Americans and Spaniards, even though I myself am Italian. It was curious to see the reaction when people found out I wasn’t writing from personal experience: one accused me of writing “high school Spanish” for “effect” (even though I am both literate and fluent in Spanish, and more so than I am in Italian); another when discovering I was not Cuban, nor Latin American, immediately ended the conversation, which up to then had been to praise my writing, and a chilling silence pervaded the room (this was at a job interview, no less, where the congregants for that search committee had been most cordial and enthusiastic up until the moment when they asked me what part of Cuba I was from). When I turned to writing about Italy, abiding by the “write what you know” constriction, the most common accusation was that I wasn’t being Italian enough. Since I come from an upper-middle class northern Italian family, my Italian-American experience defied the mythos made popular by movies like The Godfather, and, as one professional editor put it, my story wasn’t ciao-bella enough. An editor in chief from a reputable magazine rejected my story Furniture with the note, “in the end it’s the immigrant story” (one, as if all immigrants shared the same experience). Furniture ended up winning the Glimmer Train Family Matters competition not one week after that rejection, but these early experiences taught me two things about research and fiction: first, that the professional industry expects authority on any fictional material submitted for publication, but; second, authority is secondary to mythos and other types of personal prejudices that can turn experience and knowledge irrelevant.
These contradictions should have taught me not to trust the popular sayings, yet, the mythos of the writer as the reckless adventurer loomed so large that it took until my fourth year in graduate school to work up the courage to write a story about a father and his estranged son, both from the Baptist rural south, who attempt to reconcile their differences by hiking together through a desert in Arizona. This was the story that in my collection is titled Turn These Stones Into Bread. The story was loosely based on a true-life experience told to me by a friend, but it proved to be quite the research experiment. I had never been hiking. I had never been to Arizona or to any desert. I am not Baptist, nor Southern. I do not know what it is like to be a man, and my parents are not divorced. I had never even been camping, not even to summer camp, and I had no idea what it was like to sleep anywhere other then one’s bed or a hotel room. I was terrified.
I had volunteered to submit the story for a workshop due in a month, and I had no means, no money, and no time to go to Arizona and hike through the state park as the story would have demanded, had I legitimized it with the kind of personal experience that the mythos supports. However, the story kept haunting me, demanding to be written. The deadline and my commitment to the story boxed me into having to face my fears with only the kind of resources available to me in small town Iowa: interviews with friends and sporting goods store clerks, books, the internet, and maps. The fact that my friend had given me permission to write the story based on his experience did not absolve me from other moral and legal concern that he and I had to discuss at length, including the threat that the story presented to his relationship with his father, even if the story was fictional in even the finest definition of the genre.
When my short story collection was accepted for publication, I received a late night email from the editor of the University of Iowa Press. Turn These Stones Into Bread was the editor’s favorite story. Similarly, a writer colleague from Virginia upon reading the story told me unexpectedly that I had authentic insight into the culture of redemption so typical of the South– at least, according to this particular Southern gentleman. But what was most significant to me went beyond the praise of the writing and the elation at being freed from an old fear: it was a renewed understanding of the lore that silences writers, the lore that tells us we must ask permission to be what we imagine, and that we must recur to resources that are beyond reach for most of us. Any art suffers the risk of becoming the domain of the elite, and writing has certainly never been immune to such risks, but as a teacher I cannot forget the debt I owe those who supported me in my early career by protecting my own students from the largely discouraging mythologies that can destroy the imagination before it has even had a chance to bud.
The story ends well for me. Today I am writing a re-interpretation of the epic of Gilgamesh, set in ancient Mesopotamia nearly 5,000 years ago. From a research perspective it presents new problems too complex to discuss here, but worthy of the debate of the role of research in fiction. What is worth mentioning is that I would not have had the courage to undertake such an ambitious project had I not had the precedent of writing that first novella without camping in the Arizona desert first. Would the story have been better if I’d done it? I don’t know. Undoubtedly, it would have been easier to write. Certainly, I would love to one day win the kind of grant that would enable me to tread through the desert sands of Iraq and into the ancient ruins of Kish and Erek, to speak to the archeologists who are unearthing the crumbling mud-brick arches of the E-Anna under which the real-life Gilgamesh performed his rituals as ensi, or high priest and military leader of the Sumerian people, even as they work at the site, but the point is not whether or not my novel would be better if I could taste the desert air on my own tongue, but whether or not such an enterprise is necessary. And because I am able to ask the question, I am able to write. And that is the gift that I want to give to my students: the fearlessness of imagining, and the permission to write.
Excerpt from Gilgamesh:
He’d heard so much about the warrior lord of Erech that in retrospect, Amargi realized the first appearance would have been a let down, regardless what he saw. Erech was larger and more beautiful than he thought. It was already evening and the torches of the city’s courtyard were lit, a square behind the old temple that was wide enough to hold thousands. The city was crossed by man-made canals, which now glimmered at high tide with the late blessings of sunlight. The temple itself was an impressive structure of mud bricks, a great ramp rising several meters high to the step pyramid’s first level, where lamps and candles had been lit with such profuseness that even from so close, Amargi could see the recessed niches of the main level’s courtyard where the statues of the gods had been illuminated with bitumen flambeaus held in sconces. The square was enclosed in a brick wall and surrounded on all sides by tall three story buildings, one of which, Amargi knew, was the palace of the main priest or priestess, the en, and another, which was possibly the palace of the king. The city afforded no panoramic view, probably on purpose, as Amargi imagined looters and raiders would be more easily ambushed if they could see no farther then the building facing them. And yet, the sun porches and terraces of two and three story mentioned, testament to the wealth of the landowners of Erech, where daintily decorated with hanging flowering plants, and the city seemed opulent and elegant at once.
Someone shouted an announcement Amargi did not apprehend, and the crowds parted with such a blast of shouts that Amargi winced as he went for the hilt of his sword, the old vizier catching his arm and shaking his head no. A conch blew, then a rumbling of drums overwhelmed the din, and a phalanx of heavily armed men pushed through the throng, and a tall blond man behind them, clad in a long robe and a thin gold band in his hair, strolling lazily as if he were put upon. Amargi was lucky enough to be near the arched gated palace from which the man he assumed was Gilgamesh had exited, and he saw the warrior well. Servants threw petals at his feet, and women reached for his touch, and mothers held their babies up for blessings, and the guards muscled through the crowd, their faces etched in unmistakable pride in their flaxen-haired dumuzi, who in his silken, shimmering robes nodded to this person and waved at that one, his pulpy mouth curled in a bored pout, and the fleshy part under his eyes squeezing his blue eyes into an obvious ennui. The robe he wore was long and loose, true, but he held up his hands, and his fingers, long and tapered, and his face, shaven and finely shaped, made him appear like a well-kept pleasure slave rather than warrior.
Laura Valeri’s debut collection of short stories titled The Kind of Things Saints Do (U of Iowa Press) was an Iowa/John Simmons Award winner, and winner of the Binghamton University sponsored John Gardner Award. Her work appears in Glimmer Train, Big Bridge, Gulfstream, Literary Potpourri, Night Train, Waccamaw, SN Review, Fiction Writers Review, Soundzine, Clapboard House, and Adirondack Review and is forthcoming in Zahir. She was winner of the Glimmer Train Family Matters competition and a finalist of the Glimmer Train Open Fiction Awards. Her nonfiction is also published in Lee Gutkind’s Our Roots Are Deep With Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers (Other Press/Creative Nonfiction). Laura Valeri has an MFA from Florida International University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was a Walter E Dakins Fellow at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008 and a Hambidge Fellow in 2010. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing specializing in fiction at Georgia Southern University.