I was at the Plymouth International Book Festival last Sunday with Holly Davey, talking about how we explore hidden histories in our work in a discussion chaired by the artist Sarah Chapman. It was a great session, ranging over a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on the types of research we use to work imaginative responses to individuals who leave very few historical records behind them. We also talked about how difficult it can be to stop the research and get on with the art/writing.
When I talk to creative writing students who are interested in historical fiction this is a topic which comes up all the time. I use an analogy stolen from one of my old TV bosses when he talked about research - that of the child’s drawing of a Christmas Tree. The little stumpy bit of trunk is the idea or initial inspiration. The first phase of research is that long line going off it in both directions. It’s broad, a great gathering in of information, a quite free and unfocussed time of following interesting trails, finding fragments, of establishing background and context to whatever project you happen to working on. Then comes that all important upwards stroke bringing it back towards the middle. The narrowing stage when you begin to make choices, develop characters and senarios and find the focus of your story. You’ll need to go sideways again in a minute, but hopefully, if your christmas tree is going to stay up, not quite so far.
Say - just a random example - you’ve decided that your lead character is an artist in Paris during the Belle Époque - that’s the trunk. Your first phase of research might range across all sorts of artistic disciplines, all sorts of places where she might have been trained, anything and everything about the artistic community of the certain period from the academy to the barbarians at the artistic gates. Now you look at your options and narrow in. Perhaps in that first narrowing you decide that your artist should be working in oils at a fictional version of the Académie Julian. Now you need to research again, but this time the research is more tightly focussed around that particular place, and that particular discipline.
Making that decision about when to stop doing one sort of activity (gathering research), and to move into the other (making decisions and starting to create the work) is hard. We are always sure that there is something else we should be reading or looking at. Another place to visit or person to talk to. I believe it is a lot harder to do now than it was twenty years ago and I blame the internet.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the internet and you’ll have to pry my wifi homehub from my cold dead hands. I’m delighted by the huge amount of primary material now available through archive.org and Google Books. I can get hold of PhD theses, the collections of specialist museums, high quality scans of thousands of works of art in moments. This is obviously brilliant, but it makes it even harder to break out from gathering mode into creating mode. It also makes it much more difficult to stay in creating mode once you get there.
While we write, the writing throws up endless questions. Which street did that street lead into? What are the passing carriages like? What was the weather like that day? What were the headlines in the evening paper my character might see? In the far off olden days of twenty years ago, you’d have to make a note of whatever questions came up for your next visit to the British Library. Now the immediacy and omniscience of the net gives us the impression we can break off mid-sentence and just look something up quickly. I could not count the number of times I’ve done that, broken off, then disappeared down a research rabbit hole only to emerge half an hour later via facebook, twitter and email to discover myself in the middle of a sentence on the page, and no idea how I thought I was going to end it. Thing is, I start with the best of intentions. Just look up the thing and return to the page, but there is so much interesting stuff out there. Follow a thread for a while, find a gem, share it on twitter, see tweet from friend which reminds you you need to set up a time to meet up with them… are they still on holiday? No, but they’ve just put up an excellent video of goats wearing pyjamas! Oh hell, I was supposed to be working… get back to it, Robertson.
You know you’re in trouble when you start referring to yourself in the third person.
On the way back from Plymouth I started reading The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin. Its subtitle is Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload and it is a fascinating and terribly useful book. (Musicians and music lovers should also read This is Your Brain on Music too, his 2011 book which examines the neuroscience of making and listening to music). Organized Mind confirms my belief that multi-tasking is a terrible idea and shows with clear and commanding explanations of the neuroscience how counter-productive that repeated switching between modes is. It also shows why the internet rabbit-holes are so damn attractive. Basically we are wired to really, really enjoy flipping around between wikipedia references, amazon wishlists and cat videos. Paying attention to the task at hand (writing) is much more mentally demanding. I was glad to read that. I feel a bit less rubbish knowing that when I’m resisting looking at my email I’m fighting brain biology rather than just demonstrating a deplorable weakness of character.
Now I know I’m not the first person to have worked this out, I have at least one friend who writes on a computer that is not connected to the internet at all, but reading the book has made me reintroduce an old discipline. I have a lovely programme called freedom which will shut off my internet connection for whatever period of time I specify. That way I have to stay with the work and can save my will power for when I need it. Normally resisting the siren calls of toast and gin. So I am going to reclaim my morning writing time. No internet between 9.30 and lunch for me from now on. No one is going to send me an email that can’t wait for an hour or two and the shiny baubles of goat videos can go… ooh look a gorilla playing with kittens!