Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Creative Research

*Note: this post was written sometime last week when I got a job working with a bunch of petition people with too much energy. You know those people who knock on your door in the middle of dinner and ask you to sign their petition because it's for a good cause? That's them. And you know that person standing behind them with the pained expression? That's me.

I'm dreading going to work today. I started yesterday. I know all the reasons I should be grateful to have a job, the biggest one being that it's so freaking hard to find one nowadays. But it's hard to remember to be grateful when I'm standing on top of a hill in the cold, at night, with a big sign in hand and a heart attack looming.

This reminds me not only how out of shape I am, but that I'd rather be at home clicking through my DVR recordings than power walking up a hill. But I had a revelation standing on that hill. As I stood there thinking about my DVR and mentally writing my will in case my heart really did combust in my chest, a train zipped by on the tracks a few feet away from me. If you've ever stood close to an ongoing train (a fast one), you know what it's like: like the world is shaking and screaming and ending and that question about if the world will end in fire or ice is suddenly redundant because you understand it will end in lights.

It only took a few seconds for the train pass me, but it left me with a thought, a moment of clarity: I had two choices. One, I could stand on top of that hill, huffing and puffing, and hating my job. Or two, I could follow that train with my eyes until it disappeared and then file the whole experience away for later. In fact, I could make my night one big experience to file away for later.

Sure, it was cold and I was tired and I couldn't breathe. But I was also in a part of town I'd never seen before and there was so much to see. There was the train, and over there was a tiny forest of trees, and over there was an alley and an abandoned warehouse.

It's not that hard to figure out which I chose, the huffing and puffing or the "seeing." I'm a writer, and among the many gifts we have or acquire is one gift that I think supersedes the rest. I call it creative research. It's different from regular story research, where you take notes on things like how long rigor mortis takes to set in (three to four hours, and twelve for maximum stiffness; just in case you were wondering. Maybe you weren't.) or eighteenth century weaponry. Creative research is the taking notes on life, usually as it happens.

I can't be the only person who has ever walked into a hospital and started taking mental notes of everything I see: the people staring vacantly at magazines in the waiting room, the kid running up and down the hallway, the really cute male nurses who smile shyly at you when you check out their butts. I can't be the only person who opens the cupboards and drawers near the beds, like I'm taking inventory. So I might press a button or two on the computer when the doctor isn't looking, just to see what's behind the screen saver. Don't pretend like you haven't done it.

The writer part of my brain will milk as much creative research out of a situation as it can. It isn't concerned with the fact that Bee is lying in a hospital bed, drugged up and covered in dirt because she fell off a mountain while biking. I am concerned with this, but the writer part of my brain is not. The writer is wondering how much pain Bee is in and if it can be conveyed in words.

Sometimes I'm ashamed of this. Sometimes I forget how useful it is. Sometimes I love it. But regardless of how I feel about this part of my brain--the part that will try to spin everything into a something that I can use in a story-- I need it too. My writing is better because of it.

I'll probably never enjoy this job, and I'll never smile while I power walk up a hill, and I'll never enjoy carting around a sign as tall as me. But when I think about the train and the alley and the forest and the abandoned warehouse, when I think about how I now have the pictures in my head of what these things look like and can come back to them later, I don't dread tomorrow so much.

Happy Wednesday everyone!

Music: "Chicago" by: Sufjan Stevens

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. As writers, I think it's so important for us to notice the world around us....there are so many things that can inspire or inform our stories.