In college, my idea of a healthy breakfast was a bowl of Grape-Nuts disguised with a layer of Cap’n Crunch, a meal I thought of as “sweetened hamster kibble.” That unholy combination also provides a useful analogy for how writers sometimes regard facts: as nourishing but flavorless nuggets that require a discouraging amount of mastication and some camouflage to ingest.
“Amateurs try to write with words; professionals write with information,” teacher Donald Murray notes. True enough. Writers anchor even their creative work with facts, observations, research, evidence, telling details. But facts and their kin can inspire as well as inform, generate material as well as support it, act as “not so much impediments to the imagination, but rather the touchstones to locate imaginative worlds,” as Michael Stephens writes.
Consider the walrus, a creature whose wondrous strangeness is easily dismantled into a bundle of plain-vanilla facts. “Walruses feed mainly on bottom-dwelling invertebrates found on the relatively shallow and rich Bering-Chukchi Platform,” explains the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Major food items include several kinds of clamzzzzzzz . . .” Wouldn’t exactly inspire me to adopt the walrus as a spirit animal, much less learn more about it.
But then I happened across an article in a science newsletter with the startling title “Singing Atlantic Walruses in the High Arctic.” Male walruses, scientists discovered, are underwater beatboxers. They vocalize knocks and gongs in patterns so specific that researchers can identify individual animals by their tunes. That’s the kind of unlikely fact that somersaults through my brain, spinning off questions. How might this knowledge change our ideas about walruses? About oceans? About music? About us?
The surprising vocal stylings of the walrus made me wonder what else yodels, hums, or bangs in the natural world, aside from the usual suspects. Soon, news of unusual sonic phenomena seemed to appear whenever I paged through a magazine or surfed the web. My growing file of natural noisemakers included mice and elephants, cells and planets, sand dunes and icebergs. Apparently the universe is always singing to itself.
These tidbits of information were intriguing but not meaningful until I tried to write about heaps of written prayers covering the feet of a statue of St. Joseph I’d once seen on a visit to a Roman cathedral. Eventually, fact and experience collaborated with imagination to produce a one-sentence prose poem. The conclusion:
. . . and in that silence we can hear sand dunes descanting in perfect pitch and mice chirruping their tinny love songs and icebergs droning om mani padme hum and walruses gonging at the bottom of the sea, yet still St. Joseph fixes his gaze on sparrows scraping against a gilded sky; meanwhile, our cells keen against mute bone, and the stars continue migrating through restless galaxies, and, struck once like a bell at The Very Beginning, the universe chimes in the key of B flat.
For me, the actual existence of such sounds makes them more than metaphorical flourishes. Suggesting that they are the unheeded answers to prayer is the work of imagination.
“Let us gather facts in order to have ideas,” wrote eighteenth-century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc. A poem by Alaska writer Susan Alexander Derrera illustrates this process of transubstantiation. While reading a book about bees to her children, she learned that a honeybee produces about a teaspoonful of honey in its lifetime. This fact resonated with her own life as a mother and an artist, as did an Ezra Pound quote she’d been thinking about: “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” Further research provided the language that scientists use to describe bees. Her poem “Honeybee” begins:
Remember the worker
who must chew her way out
of the brood cell
into adulthood, into work. Remember
her half-life in the hive, the endless
domestic chores, the weeks
she cleans and polishes . . .
The final lines:
. . . Her remaining days
will be spent this way, dancing from bloom
to bloom and returning home
to tell about it. Taste then, in the spoon,
the measure of ten thousand
thousand flowers. Her labor,
what she tasted
Alberto Ríos honors the fundamental power of a simple fact in “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science”:
The smallest muscle in the human body is in the ear.
It is also the only muscle that does not have blood vessels;
It has fluid instead. The reason for this is clear:
The ear is so sensitive that the body, if it heard its own pulse,
Would be devastated by the amplification of its own sound.
In this knowledge I sense a great metaphor,
But I do not want to be hasty in trying to capture or describe it.
Words are our weakest hold on the world.
Fiction writers who conjure other eras, places, cultures, and identities grapple with information on a much larger scale, of course. Clumsily inserted facts can hinder narrative flow and disrupt the reader’s experience. A related risk is what journalists call “emptying your notebook,” which means dumping everything you learned onto the page whether it advances the story or not. Some writers find that steeping themselves in research and then setting it aside before drafting allows information to emerge organically.
Remember that valuable forms of research exist outside of books and Wikipedia, too. Debra Spark describes how Irish novelist Colum McCann descended into subway tunnels four or five times a week and hung out with homeless people to better understand one of his characters in This Side of Brightness. The story itself was inspired when he spotted a plaque in a subway tunnel that said only “1913.” His inquiries into subway construction dredged up accounts of accidents that blew the bodies of unfortunate workers aboveground, which he immediately recognized as the image that would become the book’s focal point.
McCann’s extensive research for Let the Great World Spin, set in the Bronx in 1974, included accompanying cops and detectives on the job and studying old rap sheets so he could absorb street language and create the voice of a thirty-eight-year-old prostitute. Such efforts helped him gain “imaginative access” to the work, he told an interviewer.
Imaginative access—that’s the key. “Facts can help evoke emotion, especially those that transmit texture, tonality, and sensual detail,” novelist Andrea Barrett explains. “But facts can’t drive a piece. Research, no matter how compelling, may give me the bones of a fiction but never the breath and the blood.”
The dynamic between fact and feeling creates what William Sloane describes as “density” in The Craft of Writing. “By density I mean richness, substance,” he writes. “It is the core of knowing your materials.” The writer who knows enough, he adds, will feel enough. A believable literary world can’t be assembled from bare facts, but facts can help the writer imagine and inhabit that world so fully, so naturally, that readers feel its existence rather than simply observe it.
Knowing your materials demands keen attention to the world, but also the willingness to wander far afield from the usual reading sources and familiar haunts. “Head down the back road, and stop for yard sales,” advises novelist Annie Proulx, who reads flyers on telephone poles, eavesdrops in bars, and collects fascinating pamphlets.
And untethering yourself from the predictable can create the conditions necessary for serendipity, which writer Pagan Kennedy calls “the art of finding what we’re not seeking.” She cites research by information scientist Sanda Erdelez, who believes that serendipity is something you do, not something that happens. Erdelez describes those who frequently experience happy accidents and fortuitous discoveries as “super-encounterers”—the kind of people who enjoy eccentric obsessions, experiment with unlikely methods, read random bulletin boards, and listen to singing walruses. In other words, writers.
Barrett, Andrea. “The Sea of Information.” The Best American Science Writing, edited by
____Alan Lightman, Harper Perennial, 2005.
Derrera, Susan Alexander. “Honeybee.” Excerpted with permission.
Kennedy, Pagan. “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.” The New York Times, Jan. 2,
Leclerc, Georges-Louis, quoted in Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard, Harper and Row,
Murray, Donald. “The Essential Delay: When Writer’s Block Isn’t.” When a Writer Can’t
____Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing Problems, edited by Mike
____Rose, Guilford Press, 1985.
Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” Poetry, March 1913.
Proulx, Annie. “Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for Yard Sales.” The
____New York Times, May 10, 1999.
Ríos, Alberto. “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science.” The Smallest Muscle in
____the Human Body, Copper Canyon Press, 2002.
Simpson, Sherry. “Santa Maria Maggiore: Seven facts, two fables, six arias, and one
____eyewitness account.” Bellingham Review, Issue 63, 2011.
Sloane, William. The Craft of Writing. W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.
Spark, Debra. “Raiding the Larder: Research in Fact-Based Fiction.” The Writer’s
____Chronicle, September 2014.
Stephens, Michael. “A Different Kind of Two-fisted, Two-Breasted Terror: Seymour Krim
____and Creative Nonfiction.” Creative Nonfiction, Issue #2, 1994.
Sherry Simpson is the author of two essay collections, The Way Winter Comes (soon to be reissued in paperback) and The Accidental Explorer. Her most recent book, Dominion of Bears, won the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished works of natural history. Her essays and articles have appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies including Orion, AQR, Creative Nonfiction, Bellingham Review, In Fact (an anthology of the best of Creative Nonfiction journal), On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors, and American Nature Writing. She has received the Andrés Berger Nonfiction Award, Sierra Magazine’s Nature Writing Award, and the inaugural Chinook Literary Prize. In addition to serving on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, she is a professor of creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.