Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | February 2019 | 29 minutes (7,983 words)
In December, I turned in the first draft of my second book. I assumed that when I finished it, I would stand up and scream. Actually scream “YES!” followed by a stream of sundry obscenities, then collapse on the floor and make my husband take a picture for Instagram.
Instead, I was in a quiet back room of Hillman Library, on the University of Pittsburgh campus, drinking a 99¢ mug of coffee, googling Erich Fromm quotes, when I suddenly realized I was done, and I just sat there mildly stupefied, then caught the bus and went home. It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap. It sucked, but in the way most serious creative endeavors suck, with a lining of deep gratification that afterward allows one to pretend that it was all in the service of a mystical something and not really, at base, insane.
It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap.
What made this second book so difficult was research: not the process of doing it, not compiling and organizing it, but the quandary of how to make it creative. How to write a book that felt like it spoke to huge questions — the meaning of life, what matters and why, all the things one gets misty-eyed about around a bonfire — via gobs of information.
This seemed at first an irreconcilable mission. I spent months stressing over the possibility that I might inform people about neuroplasticity and maternalist politics but I wouldn’t make them feel anything. I kept writing angsty emails to my editor with italicized words like meaning and emotion. Then I gave up and lost myself in a pile of tomes with titles like Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity and Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies.
In a discipline called “creative” writing, research can seem a kind of bogeyman. There it comes in its business casual flats to bleed all the freewheeling verve out of a paragraph. I believed for a long time that there was an innate tension between the seriousness of research and the levity, the spontaneous spark, of creativity; between teaching a reader and immersing the reader in the next-level sensory-aesthetic experience of art. This book (sort of) exploded that.
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After a year spent researching, then fumbling my way through the process of converting that research into story and larger vision, I started to see my research as something other than a mere tool, which would lend credence to my ideas and make everyone think I was a serious important writer with authority. I started to see my research as opening up the possibilities for creativity, enabling the layering and complexity that lifts an informative tract into a metaphysical exploration. But the dichotomy of research/creativity is a persistent one I’m still struggling to disassemble, so I did what I’ve been doing in this column, which is turn to other women writers, wiser and more experienced and badass than me, to beg them for a few hours of conversation.
In a discipline called ‘creative’ writing, research can seem a kind of bogeyman. There it comes in its business casual flats to bleed all the freewheeling verve out of a paragraph.
This time, I spoke with Leslie Jamison about The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Carina Chocano about You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, and Elena Passarello about Animals Strike Curious Poses. They were so helpful and informative that I’m going to give them each their own section. We talked process, methodology, voice, and that fun persistent question of how the “personal” is framed when it comes to writing by women. Also: obsessions, serial killer notebooks, and baking as metaphor.
Jamison’s latest book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, was a years-long project that grew out of her dissertation as a Ph.D. student in literature at Yale. Right away, reading a sentence like that, I’d be wary: I’d think the prose might be stiff, dry, lofty. But Jamison’s incredible talent lies in taking seemingly academic questions — how is 12-Step recovery wisdom manifest in the manuscripts of alcoholic writers? — and making them into urgent stories about the human condition, with naturalness and humility.
Initially, Jamison planned to write a dissertation about poverty and social justice narratives, but then she moved to Iowa and got sober. She became fascinated with the possibilities of sober creativity, and when she returned to Yale, she built a dissertation structured around four authors and their encounters with different recovery institutions. She traveled around the country to archives, and as she dug into that research, feeling into the experience of “these writers who had sat frustrated in coffee shops at ten at night eating cookies and wanting to write and then wanting this manuscript to be a beacon of hope,” she realized how much she was personally wrestling with sober creativity and its paradoxes. “It felt to me,” she explained, “like the strands were speaking to each other already as this powerful part of my lived experience, and in a way bringing a kind of urgency to the interviewing and bringing a kind of urgency to the literary reading and the critical reading.”
Out of this urgency, and the sense of her own story alive within these other narratives, grew the desire to write a book. “When I was writing the dissertation,” she said, “I wasn’t focused on aesthetic judgement and I wasn’t focused on my own disappointment.” In the book, her personal narrative became the spine. She is careful to clarify that she avoided making the book a memoir. Rather, she specified, “I’m fascinated by those ways that intellectual selves and feeling selves are in conversation in us, and trying to find forms that express those conversations on the page.”
For Jamison, that meant putting her research on alcoholic writers into conversation with her experience as an alcoholic. The result is essayistic: “a chorus of lives,” as she put it. She aimed to write a book that would acknowledge that what she’d experienced as personal was “happening in this much larger force field” and that “what we understand as personal/private/emotional experience is always shaped by where we live and how we live and the cultural narratives that surround us.” In the rare and distinct way of books like Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, The Recovering blends the personal so fluidly with the researched and reported, her story so eloquently with those of others, that the result is a group of people singing out a collective experience, with different cadences, tones, stridencies, and questions.
The Recovering blends the personal so fluidly with the researched and reported, her story so eloquently with those of others, that the result is a group of people singing out a collective experience, with different cadences, tones, stridencies, and questions.
The writing and creative process became one of tuning into the resonances between her experiences and those of other writers, which expanded from the original four to include Jean Rhys and Billie Holiday and George Cain and many more. “I was kind of like, wearing X-ray goggles and seeing through my life,” she explained, “seeing inside of my life these moments that chimed with other lives. Like when I decided to go back to drinking after my first stint in recovery, and how it felt to take that first drink back — I remember sort of noticing or thinking about that moment after having read one of Jean Rhys’s letters when she talks about stopping drinking for a month and then feeling more than anything excited for the first drink back.”
The research, she told me, “sensitized me to points of connection, and often those points of connection became structural instructions helping me to figure out when and how the pieces were going to touch in the ultimate structure of a book.” These points of connection, these resonances, also become a shared yearning that drives the narrative. The Recovering is propelled by the tension between these writers’ and Jamison’s desire to tell the dramatic story, to feature the distinct individual self aglow with novelty, and the need to accept not only that individual stories are not as unique as we believe them to be, but also that this striving for uniqueness can be toxic.
Since Jamison’s desire to prove that sobriety could be creative was so strong, she had to confront a tendency in her research to make the lives and work of her subjects conform to it. She shared an early draft of the sections of the book about writer Charles Jackson with Blake Bailey, who wrote the only biography of Jackson, and Bailey pointed out that she was romanticizing Jackson’s involvement with AA. Forcing herself to acknowledge the frightening ways in which some of her subjects had failed, either at sobriety or at making sobriety creatively compelling or both, becomes one of the central threads of the book. “Calling yourself out on the ways you’ve sculpted the material into an overly neat narrative, or letting yourself get called out by readers in that way,” Jamison explained, can make the work so much more messy but also so much deeper and richer. It allowed The Recovering to embrace so many of the ironies, uncertainties, and difficulties of the process of getting sober instead of acting as a simple palliative.
When I asked Jamison how she maintained a consistent voice in the research and personal sections, she gave several answers. The first was that she went through tons and tons of drafts. She edited the book down into smaller and smaller sections, from 20 to 25 page sections to 4 to 5 page ones. “What makes the prose feel like a song rather than a march,” she explained, “is when you list away all the stuff that doesn’t need to be there and you let its details breathe, and you feel like it has that freedom of movement.” The second was that she discovered as she was writing, moving between research and personal narrative, that she’d get sick of the lyricism of the latter and embrace the more distanced tone of the former, then vice versa, so that shifting between them became a kind of natural release. Finally, she tried to do the work of crafting beautiful prose during the interviewing and research processes. That is, unearthing the shiny, interesting details, saying to an interview subject, “I need to know what you ate for breakfast.” She explained it as “anticipating the writing struggle when you’re inside the interview or when you’re inside the archives.” By this she means, understanding what kind of information will pop in a sentence, being “alive to the details that are the only way I’m ever interested in writing.”
When I asked about her system for research, she told me: “I am a type A personality and I really like organizing things.” She went on to use the phrase “massive labyrinthine networks” to describe her process. She has folders for each author and for each set of archives, folders of labeled images from the archives, and folders of typewritten notes. She compared it to building a house: “Here are the different parts for the book, here are the different rooms.”
Jamison spent four years accumulating research and snippets of personal writing. “I was in that mode of just accumulating accumulating accumulating. That felt good, and it felt kind of safe.” She finally came into that uneasy zone where she realized it was time to get started, and she was scared. She headed off for a monthlong residency in Marfa, Texas.
At first, confronting the sheer quantity of the research was “totally terrifying.” Then, she told me, “I literally just wrote down on eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheets of paper all of the pieces of the stories in the book.” She took the pieces of paper and laid them out in a provisional structure that was 60 pages long. Then, she started writing. But it no longer felt like leaping into the unknown. It was like “a set of discrete tasks to cross off.” It felt like when she had worked at a bakery, an experience frequently mentioned in The Recovering, and she had to ice squirrel cookie after squirrel cookie, put the tray in the oven, move on to the next batch. The middle of any longform project, I believe, becomes a struggle not so much of creative vision but of task fulfillment, doggedly keeping on even though it feels rote and impossible to make out what’s behind or ahead.
As we talked, I was compelled by how Jamison described the research that went into the personal sections of the book. She told me, “There is a part of personal writing that has to do with inhabiting memories,” — the standard assumption about what the personal is or looks like — “but for me there was also a lot of Gmail archive searching and looking at old diaries.” Jamison showed the manuscript to people in her life, not only for ethical reasons but to get their take on what really happened. She came to apply her research methods for the sections on the author’s lives to the personal sections as well. She quoted her diaries like she might have quoted Jackson’s.
Yet the idea that the personal is indistinguishable from the writer self, that the personal should just spring forth from this self naturally with no filter or distinction, is persistent. Jamison gave an example involving her editor. He is, she explained, “allergic to writing about writing” and so when she’d quoted from her journal, he’d insisted she just include the quote in the prose as part of her description of her experience. But she pushed back — that 24-year-old self was very distinct from her current self. She couldn’t imagine writing, now, “my soul is an endless mouth.” Even though she was writing about her “personal” experience, she was also researching who that person had been, the melodrama through which that person had seen the world. She was seeing herself as a character. There tends to be an assumption that all that is personal is raw, immediate, when the work of so many writers — from memoirists like Mary Karr to essayists and journalists like Jamison — is highly considered, edited, curated, and polished, with considerable distance between the person on the page and the person doing the writing.
There has long been an assumed dichotomy between research-driven and personal writing, with the former understood to be rigorous and intellectual and male and the latter frivolous and easy and female. Jamison has become an inspiration to many writers — women in particular — in the way she troubles this easy dichotomy in her work. She told me, “I have always felt like the genre divides between personal writing and critical writing and reported writing never made that much sense to me, not because I didn’t understand that there were particular skills and legwork that go into archival research or critical research or journalistic reportage, [but because] in terms of how I experienced the world, those selves are very connected inside of me, and so it always made sense to try and find forms that expressed the way they were speaking to each other.”
It would have felt incomplete, she explained, if she didn’t talk about how being a recently sober alcoholic informed her archival research. It also seemed dishonest. Her story ultimately becomes an exercise in humility: She has to be honest about how badly she wants, in light of her hard-won sobriety, to discover redemption and hope in that of other writers.
Jamison’s experience both of recovery and of writing about recovery revealed to her the ways the familiar “ethical narrative call to look outward” — which I would argue often tends to take the form of shaming or ridiculing the “personal” — can end up being reductive, framing stories about other people as virtuous and those about the self as narcissistic. In recovery, Jamison explained, it is considered selfish to only listen without sharing your own story. Yet sharing your story isn’t about glory, isn’t about exceptionality, so much as it is about usefulness: Your story, in the way it reflects the others and illuminates them, becomes useful. Jamison and all of the alcoholic writers she profiles grapple with the fact that sharing their stories of recovery means embracing the unoriginality of these stories, and also the fact that their commonality — the platitudinous truth at each story’s core — can in fact be transcendent, more powerful than what Jamison calls in The Recovering “the alibis of exceptionality that masquerad[e] as self-knowledge.”
Yet sharing your story isn’t about glory, isn’t about exceptionality, so much as it is about usefulness: Your story, in the way it reflects the others and illuminates them, becomes useful.
This core tension and relationship is alive in one particular paragraph near the end of the book. “In my Ph.D. program,” Jamison writes, “other grad students talked about their undergraduate students with fond condescension, how they were always looking for the moral of the story, or the lesson to learn. But fuck that easy dismissal. Fuck that charge of reduction, and that snickering at bromides. Because sometimes I just needed to sit there and remember that Infinite Jest said sometimes I just needed to sit there and, like, hurt. Sometimes I needed the single-entendre truth. Sometimes I needed the cherry blossoms, the abundant meat aisle, the cold sunlight, the new life. ‘Too simple?’ Wallace wrote in the margin of one of this self-help books. ‘Or just that simple?’”
Chocano describes herself as a DJ: sampling, pulling bits and pieces from here and there, remixing. It’s a perfect metaphor for the liveliness and conviviality of You Play The Girl. The book is incisive, critical, and fun, and it makes you want to say yes, yes, yes, and to stay awake way too late plowing through the remaining beers in the fridge even though you have to get up early.
You Play the Girl grew out of a core observation: “We live in a culture,” Chocano said, “that treats women like they’re made-up. We live in a culture that prioritizes made-up women.” There were so many examples of this that Chocano quickly realized she would have to narrow the book’s frame, and she honed in on her own life, from birth into her forties. She would draw from her experiences and thoughts, consider the images she’d been bombarded with and made a career of analyzing, then bring in narratives — mainstream and critical/academic — that contextualized her experience and the images.
The research in this book is the kind that feels natural and fluid, like it’s something the writer just knew, just dragged up from the invisible nets in her brain, and laid out for you over popcorn on a couch, or in a bar booth, in a way that makes you say, “WHAT.” When I asked Chocano how she did her research, and how she put, say, Pretty Woman and Rebecca Walker’s essay on third-wave feminism into conversation, she said, “These are my obsessions.”
This, I can see now, is a particular type of research and a particular research personality: the perpetual accumulation of snippets and the simultaneous attention to certain larger narratives, constantly fitting the two together to develop evolving takes on a theme. Chocano summed it up with the DJ metaphor: “I know what’s in these records, loosely. I may have this huge crate of things, but I have a sense of what I’ve got in my head, or on my bookshelves, and I have a sense of how these things might fit together. I’m like, Oh, I could take this like, Southern rock and put it with this other thing, and I know it’s gonna work because the beat is the same, they’re on the same wavelength.”
This, I can see now, is a particular type of research and a particular research personality: the perpetual accumulation of snippets and the simultaneous attention to certain larger narratives, constantly fitting the two together to develop evolving takes on a theme.
Take, for example, the essay “Surreal Housewives,” which emerged from her obsession with housewives. Carina explained, “My mother was a housewife, and every single woman in my family was a housewife, and my mother didn’t even know any [woman] who had a job.” She had been recapping Real Housewives for a number of publications, so she started there, then ended up talking about feminists and soap operas, highlighting the failed expectation of Gen X women for egalitarian marriages, and chronicling the history of the housewife. She writes, “The ‘housewives’ of the 1970s gave way to the Martha Stewart ‘homemakers’ of the 1980s, then the ‘soccer moms’ of the 1990s, then the stay-at-home moms of the 2000s. Next may come the homeschooling homesteaders of the impending postapocalypse — who knows?” This brief overview highlights a central theme of You Play the Girl: We tend to assume that there’s been linear progress throughout history toward greater gender equality, when instead, we’re cycling through the same narrative over and over. As Chocano posed the question to me: “Why is the process always circular, why is there always backlash after this thing, why are we always cut off?”
The research and writing mimic this circular process, looping into the past and back to the present in order to capture how the cycle works. For example, in the essay “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Chocano begins with the 1975 movie The Stepford Wives, then looks back to the 1890s and the publication of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, then delves into 1960s sexual politics, then follows the Equal Rights Amendment’s stalled progress from the 1920s up until 2016, then returns to her own childhood to consider Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and a Ladies Home Journal column called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”
All throughout history, women had been trying to define themselves as “modern,” to escape traditional marriage, and they’d failed. Chocano writes that the woman question was “the raging question in 1865, 1890, 1920, 1940, 1963, and 1975. How did a modern girl become herself? Who got to say?” The essay, riffing, sampling from here and there, becomes a song you want to dance to, at once poppy and punk, a soundtrack to absurd contemporary womanhood that starts to play in the background of your life.
For a long time before she started work on the book, Chocano collected articles and ideas in a binder. A grad student at CalArts helped her compile it. Chocano had fantasies about flipping through it and leisurely pulling out items, but many of the things in the binder were never used. The binder instead represents one of those invisible efforts that goes into the research process, which may not manifest itself in actual information, quotes, references, but that feeds the deeper authority and insight palpable in the writing. The attention Chocano pays to these issues is a kind of perpetual research, a fine-tuning of her particular understanding of the hypocrisies hurled at women. She told me she also used the app Pocket to make clusters of links — witches and power; Reagan and Reaganomics and Saturday Night Fever; Flashdance. When she started writing, she’d start with the most interesting thing she’d discovered.
Chocano is masterful at moving between high and low, explaining historical shifts with intimate and funny language, and making you feel like this is fascinating and also, really, common sense, what you’ve been experiencing your whole life. She told me that she loves reading academic writing, and she thinks it’s helpful for contextualizing stories, but she was worried about writing an academic book herself. She did not want to have an authoritative academic layer flattening all the others, which I found to be such an astute goal and observation. (I have a difficult time finding a kind of parity in my own work; I tend to use a certain academic, scientific, or intellectual authority as a way of explaining and authorizing my narrative and perspective.)
Chocano explained of her book, “I wanted it to feel like life.” By this she meant, she wanted to give equal weight to an academic tome and to a billboard with a naked woman advertising vodka, because both can play major roles in our experience of society and ourselves. “We live in this incredibly mediated world,” she told me. “We just are steeping in all kinds of information and ideology, and it’s invisible to us.” She wanted to make all the invisible stuff of everyday life — what we might take for granted or minimize in importance — visible, to show how it shapes our beliefs. “I wanted to talk about how watching a show is just as much of my experience as walking down the street or running into a friend or going to a party,” she told me. ”It’s an experience and it’s imprinting on me.” Reality TV and academic philosophies and laws and news and conversations all filter into our everyday lives. “I don’t know that our minds really differentiate,” Chocano said. By this she means that we are absorbing all of these impressions, that it’s not only the serious ones that stick and influence us and determine our reality but also, say, the heels a Disney character wears. Her writing tried to replicate this. In one paragraph she’s writing about Charlie’s Angels and Lara Croft, saying of the latter, “The kick-ass kicked ass in a vacuum — she kicked theoretical ass,” then just a few paragraphs later she’s paraphrasing Slavoj Zizek: “The difference … between the way ideology used to work and the way it works now is that we used to accept it at face value. Now our naiveté has been replaced by a cynical awareness.”
She wanted to make all the invisible stuff of everyday life — what we might take for granted or minimize in importance — visible, to show how it shapes our beliefs
Chocano told me, “You should be able to blend [these layers] because it’s part of your experience. Using the research and removing myself from it and being super authoritative…” she trailed off. “What is authoritative?” she wondered. Ultimately, she and I posited, it has a lot to do with being male. Men are able to get away with blending personal writing and research in very “voicey” pieces with strong opinions without having their work be considered personal or light. “They don’t get the cute covers,” as Chocano put it. They manage to escape categories, whereas for women it’s easy to fall into a particular category and difficult to subsequently climb out of it. I was reminded of a comment from an esteemed, barrel-chested male journalist at a recent conference: “You write about parenting, right?” I had to take a long swig of my beer before I could respond.
Chocano wanted both to teach people certain facts — she needed readers to know that women couldn’t get credit cards in 1973, that there was once a nationwide network of free day care — but to also write a book that people really wanted to read, that they couldn’t put down. This meant that certain facts were jettisoned, most of them the standard stats about gender inequality in Hollywood — they simply felt too tired, too dry, and they made her tune out as a reader. Other sections full of information had to be written and rewritten, so that little dense clumps of history became delightful and easy to swallow.
I was reminded of a comment from an esteemed, barrel-chested male journalist at a recent conference: “You write about parenting, right?” I had to take a long swig of my beer before I could respond.
For example, Chocano gives this brief and masterful overview of the mythical origins of the housewife:
We think of women “leaving the house” and “entering the workforce” as being new at around the time The Stepford Wives appeared. But it wasn’t really all that new. The postwar suburbs around which young couples were encouraged to structure their lives were new. The American middle class, such as it was, was fairly new. The notion that in America every man who was willing to work hard was all but guaranteed a house with a wife in it to work all the modern appliances and dust the faux-colonial furniture, and with his-and-hers cars side by side in the garage: that was pretty new. And that brand-new world was sold as “traditional,” maybe not the way things “used to be” so much as the way they were “supposed to be,” the way people sometimes wished they’d been, as imagined by some people trying to sell soap from a soundstage in Burbank.
Chocano told me, “It took a lot of trial and error and a lot of messing around with the prose that was really hard, because there was so much wasted time, and it was until I sort of said, ‘I have to tell this like it’s my life.’”
This is such a fine observation. She had to claim her own authority, and that authority was funny. It was natural. It was smart and sharp. Chocano makes the point that it is incredibly difficult to be both funny and authoritative as a woman. “Too much women’s nonfiction I think can be the lighter stuff, the kind of comic essays that are marketed, oh, I’m a dork, I’m a dork. It doesn’t allow you to say, Look what’s going on over here, this is really messed up.” But at the same time she didn’t want to just write in grave, sober tones of worry saying This is really messed up. She wanted to be funny. “If you pull it off,” she said, “funny is the ultimate authoritative.” She pulled it off.
The first thing you need to understand about Passarello is that she is a research behemoth, guru, alchemist. For her, research is the creative process; research is writing. Her work is fact conjured into scintillating, absurd, imagistic netherworld. Her facts become portals into new, uncanny ways of seeing; they stretch your brain in the best way. Take for example, this sentence from an essay whose subject I won’t spoil here: “Where in my wildest seven-year-old dreams was US Patent #4,429,685, which legally awards authorship of ‘a method for growing unicorns’ to a separatist religious leader turned veterinary surgeon named Timothy G. Zell, alias Otter G’Zell, alias Oberon Ravenheart?” Or this, my favorite line in the book: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘wooly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.”
The project that would become Animals Strike Curious Poses began when Passarello stumbled across the fact that Shakespeare named a famous bear in one of his plays. “He never name-checks [his rivals],” she explained to me. “This is the only rival that he name-checks.” This bear was chained, baited, and taunted before jeering audiences. “This bear,” she said, “lives this compromised life in this time when a human wasn’t even the kind of human that we are now.”
In she dove. It was a terrible story. The bear was punished, the bear was tortured, and as she got further in she started to feel it wasn’t fair for her to just detail the bear’s miserable experience. Then she found out that bears were smaller in the 1600s, and that the bear was probably less than a foot taller than the humans reveling in his suffering, and it came to her that “this bear is a man.” Doing more research on the 17th century, she realized just how prevalent sickness was. In the essay, “Sackerson,” she writes, “Six city plagues — the pox, the ‘new ague,’ the curious ‘sweats’ — all floated past the bear garden in leagues. A river of unprecedented sick. In ’92 things got so royally poxed, the playhouses were forced to shutter up. A quarter of their population down each decade, give or take a hundred score.” From there the essay came together: the blighted age, the baited bear. It is haunting and tragic where it once could have been simply cruel. Passarello asks, “What did they see? They saw themselves, of course. A taller man — more leaden and hirsute, with thick skin better suited for a beating, but still their bear.” The research suggests a story, then the research shapes and guides that story and gives her the language to tell it.
Passarello gives another example of this process from the striking essay “Vogel Staar,” about Mozart’s affection for a starling. She began by researching the structure of male starling song, and as she got further in, she realized she wanted to put the bird next to the man, evoking how its song might have woven with his compositions. Then she had that feeling I recognize immediately, the dread of yanking oneself up over the summit of a peak only to see 20 more ahead. “I was like, ‘Oh no!’” Fast forward, she said, “Three months later of calling anyone I know that’s taken a music theory class.”
The result is a riveting duet, written in the language of music:
So what kind of murmur began that spring day in Vienna when a twenty-eight-year-old Mozart, jaunty in his garnet coat and gold-rimmed cap, strolled into a shop to whistle at a starling in a cage? That bird must have zeroed in on Mozart’s mouth as the man whistled the seventeen-note opening phrase from his recent piano concerto. … The little songbird unslurred the quarter notes and added a dramatic fermata at the end of the first full measure; we can only guess how long it held that warbly G. At the next bar, it lengthened Mozart’s staccato attack and replaced his effete grace notes with two pairs of bold crochets. And the starling had the audacity to sharp the two Gs of the second measure, when any Viennese composer worth his wig would keep them natural and in line with the key.
I asked Passarello whether she was nervous that people would zone out because they couldn’t understand the technical language of musical theory. I could imagine the track changes from magazine editors: “What is a fermata?” “Where do you explain bold crochets?” Passarello gave wise answers, useful not only for essayists but for journalists who want their work to push creative boundaries. First, she said, “A literary essay is an exercise in world-building. I just plop down with all the authorial creation I want and say, ‘Hello! Welcome to this world! This turtle is in love with Charles Darwin!’”
She pointed out that the rules for narrative nonfiction are different — if a writer has to be a guide throughout an entire book, developing ideas and a narrative through line, then she doesn’t have the same liberty to just leap, as Passarello puts it, “SHOOM swimming into the river.” She has to sustain a story and develop a set of ideas across hundreds of pages, and this requires exposition and analysis and scenes, all of which must be interconnected and perpetually deepening. The language has to be clear and useful before it can be beautiful. It has to efface itself the way a road should efface itself beneath a car, offering the seamless experience of a journey.
In Passarello’s work, however, the language is not so much a means to an end as the playful, imaginative end itself. She compared her essays to hothouses, each growing one rare orchid. She tends to and obsesses over this little world, and she expects her reader to enter it and live it as an exotic experience. She explained that for her, the ideal situation was to have readers who were “moderately interested laypeople …who are going to give the prose a shot.” Even if they don’t know the words, aren’t familiar with the concepts, they’re drawn into the spell of this other universe. Take, for example, the opening paragraph of “Harriet”: “When the HMS Beagle drops her anchor in 1835, get under the biggest, shadiest frond in sight as fast as you can. Dozens of hungry sailors will jump ship, spears in hand, many lancing their first turpin within minutes … in a few hours, they’ll all trudge back to ship, hefting dozens of your kind in makeshift stretchers of oars and canvas. Three men to every heavy shell.”
Where are we? What’s going on? Getting into these essays requires full sensory immersion and an intellectual stretch; they require me to work muscles in my mind that I can tell mostly sit lax. There is, Passarello acknowledged, “a major opportunity cost” to this: People might walk away. Hence, I believe, the reluctance of so many magazine editors to allow writers to work with language in this way, to require their readers to take leaps. My conversation with Passarello made me want to push harder on the conventions of contemporary magazine-ese, which has become so formulaic, and often so stale. Almost all voice-driven journalism nowadays has the same snarky, wry cadence; even if it’s “literary” in terms of language, it isn’t in terms of style and risk. Passarello’s boldness in both research and language renews for me the creative possibilities of information.
With considerable and endearing understatement, Passarello says, “I guess I’m sort of a rarity.” By this she is referring to the fact that, as she puts it, “the only way I can get going creatively is through researching things.” She explained, “If you think of the four major components of nonfiction being research, theme, commentary, and form, most of us start with one or two of the things with which we feel we have the most facility, and then turn to the other components as we’re kind of working our way through the essay.” She always begins with research. But there’s an assumption that creativity can’t begin there. “Form, scene, and commentary always get all this creative applause,” she told me. “Like, ‘Experimenting with form can take the essay anywhere!’ and ‘Be creative! Remember the most vivid scene you can and look for killer details!’ and ‘Get artistic with your commentary! Dance around with a scarf!’ But then research is just this stack of books on your desk that you turn to if you need to figure something out.”
Passarello actually has a research lecture. I wish someone would fund me to go sit in on it, because it sounds incredible. In it, she encourages her students to think of research as a multifaceted component of writing instead of as a singular tool brought in to bulk up an argument or lend authority. “The research thing you do when you’re beginning a project is very different from the research you do when you have a flat essay and you need some scenic details versus the research that will help you prove a point or confirm a point. … They’re all creative acts, they’re all generating a different writerly impulse.” But there’s a tendency to see research in a very one-dimensional, quasibureaucratic way. Passarello pointed out, “We’re very nimble with the way we free write, the way we interview people,” but not often in the way we research.
I asked Passarello about her method for writing from the research. She told me she keeps two notebooks: One is “this little dinky, irresponsible notebook,” where she writes down impressions, and one is “a note-taking notebook, where I’m writing down quotes and trying to understand stuff.” In the back of the “more responsible notebook,” she writes down every single document she reads.
“The serial killer notebook thing,” she said, “shows me something structural; the way I’m reporting information back to myself shows me something structural.” As an essay builds, Passarello transfers the ideas from her notebooks onto a piece of artist paper — a paper “that takes up two spaces in the back of your truck.” The paper becomes a type of map. “I think my brain is like a flat-earther,” she told me, “I can’t believe that there’s more things behind. … I have to be able to see all the food at all times or else I won’t eat it, it will go bad. I’m constantly rearranging my refrigerator so that all the food is outfacing.”
Once she has her giant flat earth of information, she turns to her computer, and transfers information from the map. Synthesizing from notebook to map to computer reveals the way she’s thinking. Her work is the ultimate example of how a writer’s “sense of synthesis,” as Passarello put it, can become theme and aesthetic and vision.
For example, in the notes that would become the tragic and lovely essay “Arabella,” about a spider who went into space with Skylab III, “all the material that was about the spider was on one side of the paper, and all the material about space and the timeline was on the other side, and I was interested in finding some way … that they were able to look each other eye-to-eye.” In the finished piece, she said, the spider and the astronauts “went into space together and swapped identities.” In the essay, their stories are told in short alternating sections in lush and bizarre detail, then woven together at the essay’s culmination. “For a spider in the center of her web,” Passarello writes, “is less distant from you than a man backflipping through a spaceship in his underwear. For a man in space is a decorated navy pilot in alien coveralls, unraveling a golden fleece to save his billion-dollar ship from frying in the nearby sun. For the spider in space still only knows a garden sun. She lifts the same eight unsheathed legs that tread any apple branch.”
Passarello can get away with this notebooks-onto-massive-pieces-of-paper-into-the-computer method because most of her essays are short. “I can’t imagine,” she told me, “having to do this for an argument that’s 40,000 words long.” The biggest project she did in terms of quantity of research and length was the elephant essay, “Jumbo II,” and “there was so much paper in the room.” She sent her boyfriend away for a week to his parents’ house. Then, she said, “I just lived in this room like a serial killer with all this paper all over … and slowly hammered it out and then fact-checked it. It was awful.” But she wanted, as she put it, “a figure skating rink of research.” And she wanted it to be right. So she shut herself off from the world and disappeared into a sea of paper.
Passarello describes herself as a “collectionist.” She said, “I’ve been fueled by the idea of the essay collection as this living breathing essay in itself. I’m making a thing that’s sort of like an album almost, a concept album.” She begins with something as simple as the name of a bear. Then, the bear’s life. Then, the 17th century. “All of a sudden before I know it I’ll have like six notebooks full of words like Wyandotte” — the breed of the headless rooster featured in the essay “Mike” — “and then it’ll send me to this peripheral research thing and I’ll have an essay and I’ll be like, that was fun, and then maybe I’ll write another one, and then maybe I’ll do a third one and I’ll see if the project sticks.”
I asked her how she knew when to stop researching, since I personally will lose myself in histories of childhood for months in order to avoid having to actually sculpt them into some sort of coherent narrative. She sympathized. “We all are like, I need to go back and watch all of those episodes of Sex and the City,” she said. She knows when to stop because “There is a moment … where it gets too exciting to keep thinking in this way of gathering information, and I just have to get started.” Once that happens, she begins with a line. A scene. “I just lean on that impulse and put one foot in front of the other, and usually midway through I’ll figure out where the piece is going to finish.” Sometimes, there’s something that “sends the piece into the stratosphere,” like Salvador Dalí shouting, “THIS HORN WILL SAVE MY LIFE!” at the end of the rhinoceros essay. Sometimes she will discover the need for more research, then the research rewrites the piece, like when she found a 50,000-word police blotter from the World’s Fair in Buffalo detailing the events around President McKinley’s assassination. She describes the process overall as achieving “three different moments of doneness: the doneness of the preliminary work, the doneness that lets you see structurally what’s happening, and the doneness that lets you see the nebulous finish line.”
I recognize this immediately: For me, the preliminary doneness is followed by a deep sense of dread. The structural doneness is followed by exhaustion and tedium, as I recognize just what I have to do and move through it one piece at a time. And then the doneness when I see the finish line is ecstatic, and I have to be careful not to sprint through the final steps. I have felt so ambiguous about research, at times weary, at times lit up with discovery. Passarello is unequivocal in her love: “Research,” she told me, “is the most magical thing.” By this she means, a 50,000-word police blotter from the Buffalo World’s Fair! Charles Darwin’s diaries! Fan mail addressed to “the headless chicken in Colorado”! Passarello believes “if you can develop a nose for research, you can harness that magic.”
She describes the process overall as achieving ‘three different moments of doneness: the doneness of the preliminary work, the doneness that lets you see structurally what’s happening, and the doneness that lets you see the nebulous finish line.’
Thinking about my conversations with these writers and my own writing process for my second book, I’ve come to recognize the rigidity and shallowness of my understanding of research. Perhaps because I thought for many years that I would become an academic, and still associate that way of thinking and writing with “seriousness” and rigor; perhaps because I’ve internalized, then tried to define myself against the mainstream narrative that says writing by women is precious and mushy; perhaps because my imagination is actually quite cliché in its definition of creativity, I’ve mostly equated research with An Important Person Saying An Important Thing That Makes Me Sound Important. And to be fair, a lot of research is this. It’s finding proof. It’s finding authority. It’s fleshing out a hunch.
‘Research,’ she told me, ‘is the most magical thing.’ By this she means, a 50,000-word police blotter from the Buffalo World’s Fair! Charles Darwin’s diaries! Fan mail addressed to ‘the headless chicken in Colorado’! Passarello believes ‘if you can develop a nose for research, you can harness that magic.’
At the same time, original research is so much more than this: It is new language, it is a depth of understanding that actually changes the scope and aesthetic of the original project. For me, discovering the violent energy that men have dedicated to usurping women’s reproductive power throughout history altered the course of my project and raised a question that hadn’t been anywhere near the surface of my brain when I began: What does it mean to have reproductive power? What would it look like to reclaim that power in ways that are not defined by men? This was just one question out of many that arose from research that I did not anticipate.
At the same time, I’m not sure I have figured out yet how to use the often lovely language and concepts that arise out of research — the term “astrocytes,” for example, referring to glial cells in the central nervous system — in a visionary way that doesn’t feel strained, like, Here I am waxing poetic about star cells, being creative! I’m compelled, however, to imagine the possibilities here, to push the boundaries of the way I understand research. To see it as a tantalizing, torturous idea — sober creativity — shining light on many stories and lives over many years. To see it as a great equalizer that can pull together Sandra Bullock and the town of Celebration, Florida, and Slovenian philosophers to give a sense of the texture of women’s lives. To see it as a palette of terms and ideas, poxes and rhinocerons and bold crotchets, that makes the brain do gymnastics. Too often, I think women writers work under immense pressure to be taken seriously, wielding research mainly as a “scientific,” intellectual, professional tool, a cloak of maleness in which to couch dangerously female emotion and story. This approach can be flattening. I think of a comment Jamison made when she was talking about the problematic dichotomy between research and personal writing: “There’s room for all books in the literary ecosystem I want to live in.” I wonder if we can allow research to let us take flight, to be more, not less, ourselves, to diversify this ecosystem with facts like carnivorous plants and flowering cacti, with information that rips through the fall canopy and sets a thousand leaves into a storm of color.
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Sarah Menkedick is the author of Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm (Pantheon, 2017), which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her second book, about an epidemic of anxiety in American motherhood, is forthcoming from Pantheon. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, Oxford American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.
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