Eula Biss spoke at a gathering yesterday at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where I’m teaching a class called “Away with Words,” which I gave serious thought to naming “A Way with Words,” but that’s another post. Biss talked about research for personal essayists and how it differs from academic research. One point she made was about how the research can take you to a place you hadn’t intended to go. She described her own investigation into telephone poles, entering the term into a newspaper database for a specific period around the turn of the previous century. She didn’t describe her original intent, but she described the stories she kept finding — horrific lynching after horrific lynching. That was the essay she wrote.
Such a shift can happen in academic research, too, but the shift would likely be less dramatic, since most academics have a fairly well devised thesis by the time they dig in.
Her second suggestion was a welcome one, too. The topic was archives — those special locations all over the nation and world where original documents and materials are kept. She invited the writers to simply ask an archivist “What do you have here that’s really interesting that no one has written about?” Such a question might seem ignorant or naive, but she, who has published two prize-winning books of essays, claims it’s an excellent question. Archivists know the hidden gems in their collections — the ones just waiting for a writer to shape into an essay for readers.