When it comes to the research essay, I’ve always been of two minds. On the one hand, the research essay presents an amazing opportunity, an opportunity to chose any topic in this world — primates, for instance — and make myself an instant expert on it. I have an insatiable desire to know everything about everything, and this, of course, is why the research essay has always appealed to me.
So I soak up research like a sponge, and like a sponge that has become too full of water, the information starts to seep out of me. It comes out in drips and drabs. Trivial facts about primates flow into conversations with my friends and family. “Did you know that bonobo societies are run by women, and they are the only non-violent primates?” “Gibbons bond with their mates by singing together every morning.” My friends and family start out fascinated by the information, but eventually their fascination disintegrates into mere tolerance. I like to think this is their subtle way of telling me that it’s time to put it all on paper. When I sit down to write the essay and have done the research this thoroughly, it is always the easiest essay that I have ever written. The well-researched essay basically writes itself.
But then there is the darker side of the research essay when the research takes over. It takes over my subconscious, and it takes over my essay. It haunts my dreams at night, and transforms what I set out to write — a comic piece comparing primate and human bonding — into something completely outside of my intentions — a tragic condemnation on primate research. I read my finished essay not sure whether to be proud of the piece I’ve create or to throw it away and start over. Is it better for me as a research writer to follow the research where it leads or to seek out the research that will allow me to write the essay that I set out to write in the first place? Which is the more honest way to write?
It is the same dilemma that Eula Biss faced when writing her acclaimed essay “Time and Distance Overcome.” What she set out to write was an essay on the telephone pole, and what it became was an essay on lynchings. Had her research on the telephone pole not led her to hundreds of articles on lynchings, she would have written an entirely different essay, likely beautiful, but likely less powerful and less renowned.
She chose to follow the research, and it is the path I, too, most frequently choose. I have told myself that it is the most honest way to write. But I cannot help but feel that, in a world full of tragedy, following the research will lead me down many dark roads, and sometimes it may be better to rage against the darkness and seek the light. Within every subject, lightness and comedy can be found, and I cannot view these things as being any less honest a part of the human experience than darkness and tragedy.
Shari Lefler is an MFA student, specializing in Creative Non-Fiction at Florida Atlantic University. She was born and raised in Boca Raton, FL, a place she sometimes tries to leave but always returns to on account of other places being cold. She spends her spare time trying to cuddle with her dog that spends its spare time trying to escape her grasp.