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Sarah Menkedick

Behind the Writing: On Research

Illustration by Katie Kosma

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.

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