Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Accidental Researcher

Traveling is always a good thing for nonfiction writers. And I don’t mean, the traveling we do when we are aware that we are in the throes of research. No, that I call intentional research, and that is in its own category of wonderful. It’s the accidental research that I have grown so fond of; that has, in fact, become necessary to my process. The serendipitous discovery, shall we say? And serendipity, I believe, is critical component to a good story.

Accidental and serendipitous—these may not be two words that people associate with nonfiction. And yet, for me, they carry as much importance as the intentional, well-planned research tasks I set for myself. If I had figured this out at the age of 20, I might not attribute my consciousness of the importance of accidents and serendipity to being older and wiser, but there it is. It has taken a couple of decades of doing the work in a linear fashion to figure out that the nonlinear bears equal consideration in the process.

This week, I have been in Chicago, and my head is spinning. I have stumbled upon so many tidbits of information I didn’t know during visits to the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium—and even sitting in the theater watching Jersey Boys. My synapses are firing. My brain is sifting through the many “wow, really?” moments that have awakened new areas of consciousness and I now know, can really trust, that at some point in time a story will begin to form in my mind from these nuggets I have filed away. Will it be another space-related topic? Or will I return to my roots and look at animals in a whole new way for me? Perhaps one of the fascinating things I learned about the relationships in the art world will trigger something.

Two things I know for sure—1) the stimulating accidental research that occurred this week will bubble in my brain and 2) at some moment in the future a serendipitous comment or action will bring it shooting to the surface and an idea will emerge.
What this means to me is that the simple act of living my life has a direct and profound impact on the work that I pursue; the work that I love. And as I scroll through my colleagues’ posts just through the past few days, I see we have this strongly in common. What could be better than that?


Unknown said...

Tanya, you've hit a nail! I always tell kids that I treat my brain like a computer. I feed it information, I give it instructions, sometimes I even give it a deadline. And then I let it do its thing. What pops up at some later time never ceases to amaze me. You've gotta collect the "goesintas" in order to produce the "goesoutas!"

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I've learned through experience to save all receipts -- even on a "pure vacation", not a planned research trip. Story ideas pop up at the most unexpected times and places to make those vacations tax-deductible!

Dorothy Patent said...

Right on, Tanya and Vicki and Gretchen as well. Part of what makes us nonfiction writers is, I think, that when we find those 'cool facts' we feel compelled to share them with our readers. We want them to feel that same jolt of wow, and serendipity is how those wows come to us. I figure any travel I do is business as sometimes it's years later than something I saw or experienced leads to a book.