On Embracing Research in Essay Writing

Many of my personal essays are born of personal experience. Maybe I’ve witnessed some event, recalled some memory, or have some thought swirling around in my mind that won’t leave until it’s incarnated in writing. Whatever form it takes, a personal essay, for me, is always personal.

This is a good place to start, but the temptation is to stay there, without venturing further than the recesses of one’s own mind. But this limits the reach of one’s writing, and its potential to connect in a more meaningful way with a reader.

“Research,” Phillip Lopate asserts in To Show and To Tell, “inspires curiosity, helps you break out of claustrophobic self-absorption and come to understand that you are not the only one who has passed down this road. You begin to see your experience as part of a larger pattern, be it sociological, historical, psychological, anthropological, cultural, political, or theological: these lenses can supply useful new perspectives to your private tale.”

Research is not second nature to me, at least not when writing essays. Though I enjoy reading research in others’ essays, I have to deliberately make a point to include it, to think of including it, and or even to recognize points of personal experience which could be tapped for research in my own essays.

Or maybe I just forget about it altogether because I know the tremendous effort it takes to present research accurately, and to do so with style. 

When I was in elementary school, I remember the “Non-Fiction” section of my library as being the boring part, one which I only used when there was a required “research project” due. Maybe we were researching volcanoes or bald eagles or hummingbirds. We had to find a couple of Non-Fiction books to do “research” from, which meant reading the books, determining the important facts, writing “jot-notes,” then writing these back into full sentences using our “own words” to form our “reports.”

I went through the steps, but became easily frusterated, recognizing I’d re-created something so close to the original that I had to go back and make sure that it didn’t look as though I’d just “copied” it. How can I write facts in “my own words,” I wondered. They’re just facts!

I couldn’t see the benefit of this kind of “research” then (and I’m still unsure what my teachers were hoping to teach us about writing.) Missing from the process was the “creative part.”

I recently was made aware of a contemporary essayist who I’d not read before, Jane Brox. After reading only one of her essays (“My Father’s Things, and My Own”), I determined I wanted to read anything and everything by her, no matter the subject. Her skill at turning something which was personal into something so applicable, so interesting, so relevant to me opened up my mind, and I began to see the possibility of how to make the personal essay into something universal.

So I searched her at my local library, and checked out the one book of hers that was there: Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. It was in the adult Non-Fiction section.

As I began reading it, I realized it was no essay at all, but was exactly what the title deemed it to be: the history of artificial light. Already applicable (we’re all users of artificial light), she was also able to make it interesting, this story of light.

Instead of just giving the facts, by turns of phrase, Brox invites us to imagine what it was like to be a prehistoric artist painting by dim, flickering light the walls of the caves of Lascaux. Or living in the Middle Ages when cities had curfews by which you had to be in your home, and if not, navigate the dark streets strewn with chains across them at night, which were to “prevent vandals from running freely through the streets,” this before the time of streetlights.

How to take such an immense amount of information as Brox has done, condense it, and then make it feel relevant and interesting, and write in such exquisite prose, I could not begin to fathom. But I do know that she took the facts and transformed them into her own words, largely by translating them through experience that we could imagine ourselves. She made the historical personal in her book, and the personal universal in her essays, through blending research and personal experience together.

Lopate claims that “When you are researching, what you are looking for, subconsciously or not, is the oddity that will spark your imagination — not necessarily the most important detail, but the one that will excite your love of paradox or sense of humor.”

In my elementary school days, I didn’t understand all this — I was just trying very hard not to plagiarize. I hadn’t understood that in my own retelling, I could change the way a fact was received.

Now, as I gather information for a new project, I see research in a new way: it can open a subject up, expanding it further than my personal experience ever could on its own.

Question: How do you use research in your personal writing?