Friday, February 25, 2011

Perfection, Research, and Serendipity

I’ve been following the discussion Rick, Hannah, and John have been having and thinking about the perfection question. Do I strive for perfection when I write? Well, not really. I would be paralyzed by self-doubt if I did. I have no equivalent experience (such as playing an instrument) that has prepared me to aim for that level of performance. My substitute for striving for perfection is striving not to get it wrong.

I have an obsession with research. I should admit up front that I'm one of those weird people who is as happy as can be when I'm sitting in a library hunched over a microfilm machine. That’s fortunate because I would need to do research even if I didn’t love research. My powers of description are impaired by the fact that I often can’t remember -- or never knew -- common things. I have to look them up. That leads to what I call “freestyle research.” Look up the name of an object and find the story of how it came to be called that. Look up a person’s name and find an interesting tidbit in his bio. Look up the name of a song and find out the film it was used in. One thing leads to another and I go with the flow, often finding myself deep into all kinds of subjects about which I hadn’t realized I had even a passing interest.

Mystery writer Lawrence Block is credited with this observation about serendipity: “Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.” While looking for the source of that quote I stumbled on an article that Block wrote for the New York Times back in 1990, a travel essay titled “Follow The Serendipity Road.” In this essay, Block described the pleasures of discovering tourist attractions such as a corn palace or a clay factory as he and his wife traveled about the country by car. Here he wrote, “you are never on the wrong road, because every road leads where you're going." The discovery of Block's travel essay brought me back to my original reason for thinking of serendipity. I wanted to explain how research leads to unexpected and sometimes delightful surprises. Block’s description of the pleasures of meandering travel captures the feeling I get when I do research. Somehow it all comes full circle. I find what I didn’t know I was looking for and often it is more interesting than my starting point.

That’s why my favorite stage of the writing process is when I’ve gotten the idea for a book and can plunge into the research. I stretch that stage out as long as I can because I hate what comes next. I hate sitting down to write the first draft. In fact, I could cheerfully go for months, even years, without writing the first draft. But doing the research eventually gets me to the computer because I’m so excited about some aspect of the story that I need to get it down.

And once I have a first draft -- which takes longer than it should because I have to warm up by writing and rewriting the first 50 pages -- then I can move on. I can move on to the third stage: revising. Yes, I’m going to join the chorus on this one. I like revising. I love revising. It’s fun. A delight after the profound misery of the first draft. Revising has something in common with research. The more I revise, the more likely I am to discover aspects of the story that I didn’t know was there.

So I have a process. I know what I need to do to get a book written. And, although I may never achieve perfection, if I keep on being obsessed with research and work hard enough on my revisions, maybe I’ll keep growing as a writer. That's about all I can hope for without giving myself anxiety attacks.


Gail Baugniet said...

Frankie, thank you for sharing the ordered steps of your writing process. Though still an aspiring author, I enjoy the research and revision aspects of writing also. It's good to know I'm in good company and on the right path.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

The steps sound orderly, Gail. But my actual process isn't. You don't even want to see my scary desk when I'm in the midst of doing research and/or revisions :)

All the best with your own writing!

Donis Casey said...

This is very much like my process.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Including the messy desk?

Donis Casey said...

I haven't seen the top of my desk in years.