Or: You Never Know When Research Will Prove Useful
1. Not all Navel-Gazing Is Bad
A few weeks ago, I published a review of the electronic duo Matmos’s new album, Plastic Anniversary. At the risk of repeating myself, Plastic Anniversary—which uses sounds made by plastic as its sonic palette—is a bizarre thrill of an album, and exists in the same head-spinning space that the rest of Matmos’s catalog plumbs so well. It’s an excellent record.
At any rate, while writing the review, I found myself revisiting an old topic, one which I’d grappled with while writing my first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle. Namely, plastic.
In As If, the essay “Ports and Dockings” explores my mother’s chemotherapy port, and how having the port installed changed her body. “Ports” also touches on the nature and history of plastic, the definition of “cyborg,” and what it means to have a “port” in one’s body.
“Ports” was a difficult piece to write, in part because it required a ton of research. I spent lots of time chasing leads (some false, some useful) and navel-gazing background material. But because I wasn’t writing on a deadline—or for someone else—I was able to really dig into my research. I was self-indulgent.
But if I hadn’t been, I might not have found the below video of Norman Mailer discussing plastic with French TV. At the time, the video was less integral to my writing than it was interesting; out of it I got a brief discussion and quote (which felt too brief given the amount of time I spent with the video) that served as a nice “hinge” in the essay.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
Fast forward several years to earlier this year, when I found myself writing about plastic again, and eureka! All that time I spent researching? It was handy, especially the Mailer video!
Though revisiting an old topic felt strange at first, I appreciated the opportunity. Because I’d written about plastic before, I was confident in my ability to do so again. I also appreciated that the earlier time I’d devoting to research allowed me to write more quickly—and to efficiently conduct follow-up research to fill gaps—the second time around.
The lesson, of course, is that not all writing work needs to lead somewhere right now. In fact, the more one writes, the more one learns that much of the work one does may lead nowhere. But you also learn that the more you look at something, the more you can learn about it. Even plastic.
Would you like to know more? Sure you would! Then sign up for Incorporating Research and Data Into Nonfiction. The course starts Monday, April 29, and over the course of its four weeks we’ll explore the many ways research can enhance your writing (and writing habits).
Kevin O’Rourke lives in Seattle, where he works in publishing. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, was published by Tinderbox Editions.
A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he is an active literary and arts critic. Publications where his criticism has appeared include Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, where he is a regular contributor. His work is currently supported by a grant from 4Culture.