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Notes for a brief talk on the role of research in my writing

given at a panel discussion at the Naropa Summr Writing Program 27 June 2002


Copyright © 2002 Peter Quartermain


Writing is first and always a process of discovery, and scholarship is -- like writing -- a form of play.


I want to pursue two threads here, one of them to do with the role of scholarship in my academic / expository writing, because this week I am the resident professional academic critic on faculty, the other with the personal.  As the one member of faculty who chews everything up into dry and indigestible particle board, I want to say that I was really taken aback to be asked to talk about the role research plays in my writing.



First, some rules, permissions, and practices for producing particle board.


1) NEVER make anything up – double check if possible -- be accurate, exact.

2) Obey impulse, follow serendipity. A lot of my research is let’s call it accidental, certainly casual. Walk down the street, go to a show, run round the park, eat a meal, have an argument, whatever – and you see or hear something you didn’t know, and it strikes a spark, it belongs. There I was thinking idly about what John Bevis might mean when he says writing should be drawn directly from nature, and earlier this week somebody told me in casual conversation that the mocking birds in the street where she lives in San Francisco have learned to imitate car alarms – now that’s part of scholarship / research in my book – of course I have to check it out, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so without that casual remark, and it shifted my thought, even if I never draw on or use that little fact in my writing.

3) Write from what you don’t know towards what you don’t know (i.e. position of ignorance).

4) Which means: write from everything you know. Of course

i] you can’t get it all in,  even if you write one of those monster biographies eight-inches thick, second and third volumes to come.-- But why would you want to? Who cares what Hawthorne had for breakfast every day of his life?

ii] you can’t forget what you know, and

iii] if something pops into your head while writing a sentence or paragraph, it’s trying to tell you something – a thought or sudden glimpse of Gertrude Stein when you’re in the middle of an essay on Wordsworth is there for a reason and you ignore it at your peril; you need to find out how she belongs, where she might lead you – maybe you’re writing the wrong essay, and she’s telling you where to go. You won’t know whether she belongs until you’ve followed her lead and finished the essay.

That is to say, you’re in a pressure cooker - that’s what writing’s all about once you get going – “Whenever I make a mark,” Virginia Woolf said, “I have to think of its relation to a dozen things.”

iv] In any case, it’s easier to cut than to expand, and condensation / compression as a rule keeps the writing lively, energetic.

5) Shun judgment. The job of the critic and scholar is absolutely NOT to determine whether a poem / play / novel is any good or not. Judgment of that sort stops thought, for it involves a dismissal of somebody, the setting up of arbitrary rules and generalisations, and it closes down dialogue / conversation, along with all further thought. Who the hell cares whether Keats is a “better” poet than Shelley? And what then happens to poor old Thomas Lovell Beddoes or John Clare, or Wordsworth’s contemporary Robert Anderson, the Cumberland dialect poet, in the process? Has anyone here besides me in this room ever heard of him, let alone read any of his work?

6) Be passionate and, yes, personal. You’ve gotta care.


Second, my personal writing.

I’m writing my autobiography – Where I lived and what I learned for: Part I: Growing Dumb. (a more-or-less-parodic reference to the opening chapter of Walden). Part Two will be Dumber; Three (if I get that far) Dumbest. So far, over the last eighteen months or more, I’ve written about 150-170,000 words, and I’ve reached the age of nine. I’ve got a map on the wall above my desk, large scale ordnance survey showing every house and building. On the shelves behind me I’ve got a 1943 Bartholomew’s Road Atlas of Britain  and a 1941 street map of Birmingham, where we lived during the blitz, a current guide to part of the British canal system, and a few odds and sods scattered round the house – my old stamp collection, some Meccano Magazines for 1939-45 I bought from a dealer in England, stuff like that – research materials, though I haven’t exactly searched, since I don’t know yet what I need. Hardly any photos, none from during the war of course, but in one of my notebooks there’s stuff Meredith and I unearthed in the Newspaper Library at Colindale, reports of the school headmaster’s trial and sentence to seven years in jail in 1944 -- we got that the last time we were in England, when I went back with a tape and measured various rooms in that school I lived in as a boarder for too many years.

It’s all straight narrative – “that’s what gets you in jail,” Bruce Conner once said – but I couldn’t and can’t help that, I’m doomed, stuck with narrative necessity, so I’ve set up some rules to make it tolerable. I don’t always obey them, I might add.

1. Parataxis.  i.e. avoid like the bubonic plague the sorts of hypotactic structures (sentences) which announce cause and effect, but rely instead on the astonishing forward push of “and then . . . and then” to carry me through. It also means don’t forward the writing by thesis, but by let’s call it association, composition by field -- be open to interruptions and disturbances. Obviously, I do have aims for the text, but I want the reader to be able to draw her own conclusions which will I hope be something like the ones I discover in the telling, but I’m trying to avoid conclusions if I can – they’re a form of judgment.


I'm not going to go through all the rules (Briefly, they are: avoid generalisations; shun nostalgia (sentimentality) if possible; and  write in the present, from where I am now, not just where I was then (i.e. allow my blockages etc into the prose; switch back and forth).  I don’t have time, here, but there’s a couple I need to mention:

2. Get the history straight – vocabulary, street names, furniture, etc etc etc


3. If I can’t remember, make it up! [This often involves quite a bit of research. “If you make up something,” Robert said yesterday talking about writing biography, “that would be dishonest / dishonorable.”  I’m writing this for me.



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