I admit it. I’m a research junkie.
I love sifting through articles and books for buried treasure, those golden nuggets that somehow amplify and deepen what I’m trying to write about. It's almost scary how easily I can delve for hours into a book or cyberspace, trying to unearth information about whatever happens to pique my interest at that moment. It's a dangerous addiction. I can lose myself in it, and come out feeling light-headed and slightly nauseated, as if I’ve eaten a dozen jelly donuts and have nothing to show for it but a box full of crumbs.
Take my recent dalliance with the Japanese illusion. Suffice it to say that it’s a century-old experiment involving double-clasped hands; its purpose is showing how visual confusion can mess up the messages our brains send to our bodies. My son’s speech therapist showed it to me one day, and I thought: Aha! What a terrific way to show, viscerally, what it really feels like to have a speech disorder.
So I began digging. I went into JSTOR and found musty online articles that revealed experimental data on the illusion. I discovered that in the 1940s an Austrian psychiatrist named Paul Schilder had used the illusion to illustrate different things about brain impairment. Cool! I thought. There’s got to be more on this. An hour later, I had found five more articles on Schilder, but after reading through them didn't find what I was looking for. I kept digging. I found fascinating tidbits about body image and surrealism and “constructive energies of the psyche,” but, again, nothing really relevant to what I was writing about.
Two hours had flown by, and I had nothing to show for it but a box full of crumbs. Yet after spending this much time searching, the last thing I wanted to do was give up.
How do you know when you’ve become overly immersed in research? My writing professor, Barrie Jean Borich, provided a simple and wise answer in class one evening that I’ve tried to remember in the thick of my sloppiest research binges.
“When you realize you’re not writing any more,” she told me.
At some point, I sobered up. I took notice of my bloodshot eyes and realized that, no, I wasn’t writing. What I was doing was using research as a convenient excuse to put writing off. So I took a deep breath and put Schilder and his Japanese illusion on the shelf. There might be something there, but whatever it was would have to wait. And then, I started writing again.
There’s no doubt that research is crucial in writing. We need to ask questions and probe and pick through things and find what’s interesting. But for some, research can be so alluring that it can become dangerous. Research junkies like me need to know when to stop. We need to know when we’ve crawled so far into the cave that we’ll have a tough time finding our way out.
Research is important, but so is writing. We always need to make sure we're continuing to move forward. While I believe intense curiosity should drive us, it has been my experience that the deep subjects in my writing, those big, underlying themes, rarely emanate from the research I do. They come from the thinking I do on the page, the puzzling and circling around the subjects that obsess me. They come from the words and the writing.