Research Blues

17 May 2001

So. I've been reading about Finland, in preparation for the Not The Moose Book. It feels like I'm a big ol' slacker whenever I do this kind of thing. I mean, I'm reading. If prose is not hitting the page or the screen, I feel like I'm not working. And that's just not true. I've made so much progress on this book this week, just by reading whatever stupid stuff I can get my hands on.

For example: after World War II, cars were extremely rare in Finland. Makes sense, right? If you'd been given a question, "How common were cars in Finland in the late 1940s and early 1950s?", you probably could have come up with a general answer. And this book is certainly not about cars. But having the silly statistic pop up in a book I was reading got me thinking about transporting my characters for the first half of the book -- the infrequency of auto usage, the possibilities for envy if someone was fortunate enough to have a car, the probable road conditions in remoter areas. And then the images for the book itself came out much clearer. I could actually get scenes going, instead of just chains of events. That's what makes for the book -- not the plot outline per se, but the actual scenes.

I recognize how this works for other people. If Timprov or Tim tells me that he's been thinking a lot about a story idea, I don't shout, "You big slacker! Get to real work!" I recognize it for the valid part of work that it is. It's just that I am magically supposed to be able to do without anything that can't be counted or measured in units of words per day, or pages, or hours putting prose together.

It doesn't work like that. It never will.

Someone -- I forget whether it was Natalie Goldberg or Anne Lamott, since I read their books in quick succession -- was talking about keeping a journal as composting. It's worked that way for me pretty well -- I glance back at old journals from time to time, and images and ideas will have worked their way to the top. Fermented. Whatever. But it also works that way with stuff I read, and this is where it gets tricky. I don't feel like I'm working if I read random nonfiction that might someday give me a story idea. I don't think that should count. So it's the purposeful nature of the reading that counts as work in the short term, even if the stuff that's less purposeful is more worthwhile in the long-term. I guess the line has to be drawn somewhere. And it's not whether I'm enjoying what I'm doing, because I love this job. (Gloat gloat gloat.)

But if what you're interested in is Finland, good luck. Don't tell me nothing interesting has happened there. Lots of interesting things have happened there. It's just that most of them didn't affect America much. Which is not the ultimate determinant of what's interesting. Honestly.

Discovery of the morning: "I'll just write this journal entry before lunch" does not work too well if you're also ordering birthday presents, writing e-mail, and trying to get story fragments down. Multitasking is not always our friend. Hungry....

Postscript: I forgot to mention, today is Syttendemai! God Syttendemai, Norskies! Have something with lots of dill in it to celebrate.

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