Did I have time for the Sanders Writer-in-Residence workshop with Eula Biss? No.
Are my other classes suffering because of the workshop? Well… yes.
Am I glad I'm taking the workshop? No question. In the first two days, I felt my brain matter expanding vis-à-vis my own writing, ideas gelling in fresh ways, moving in more resonant directions, into side trips I hadn’t even considered. Mostly because of what Eula (“Hello, everyone, I’m Eula”) is teaching us about the wisdom of research:
Different kinds of databases. (“You might want to try that same thing, with say, LexisNexis.”)
Go there. Find stuff out. Soak it in.
Key, here, she tells us, is don’t let the research shout, “I’m here!” Keep it invisible. Allow it to inform, to play itself out, on the page. Research is the stuff behind the writing, the invisible mortar that gives depth to a text, informing, rather than directing, how the writing manifests itself on the page. “The page,” what appears there, is what matters, in the end. The poet David Trinidad, Biss tells us, is an avid object-based researcher, finding objects on eBay, including Barbie dolls, various colors of Slicker lip gloss (for the poem “Slicker.”) and even, for his work on Sylvia Plath, a phone just like the one in Plath’s office, wallpaper just like hers -- in the end, a kind of totemic recreation of her writing space.
For Biss, nonfiction artist extraordinaire, author of The Balloonists and Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays, professor at Northwestern, and hero to many of us who write creative nonfiction, genre doesn’t matter. Whether you write fiction, nonfiction or poetry, immersing yourself in research can “move you into whole new territories to explore.” Don’t forget the research that can take you in some other direction – the counter-intuitive, the thing you’re not writing about. It just might lead to a passage on the page that you weren’t expecting.
I have to go read now for Biss’s workshop today. And then go digging.
Mary Ann Hogan is working on her MFA in nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University.