Reviewed by Vicki Mayk
Philip Gerard opens his book, The Art of Creative Research (The University of Chicago Press, 2017), with a prologue titled “On Fire For Research.” It sets the stage for an incredibly lively and useful exploration of research for writers of all genres — poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Especially nonfiction. Gerard’s prologue makes clear that the research he’s talking about bears no resemblance to what many of us remember when we wrote the dreaded research papers required in high school. In this craft book, research is a valuable part of the writing process. And, as he concludes in the last sentence of the prologue, it can even be “a thrill.” Gerard clearly conveys his passion for research that informs writing in a craft book that is well-written and peppered with examples from many established writers.
Gerard begins by explaining what creative research is and how to use it. He quotes nonfiction writer and journalist Bronwen Dickey who warns that writers must maintain a sense of skepticism when researching. Dickey states, “As a writer, the most important tool in your toolbox is the question: ‘How do you know that?’ ” Gerard explains that research in its many forms — from primary historical documents to personal interviews — provides writers with an answer to that question. Even while he’s endorsing research as a tool, he’s quick to include a caveat: Writers should be wary of falling so in love with research that they never get around to writing.
From that lively introduction, the book provides an easy-to-read, step-by-step plan for conducting research. He begins with a chapter on preparing a research plan, a how-to approach that includes suggestions for ways that research can help a writer find the focus of his project. It also includes ideas for how to get started, stemming from the most basic question, “What do I need to find out?” Gerard also addresses the topic of access — an issue that is crucial to scoring important interviews with people key to a book’s topic or obtaining the right to review documents integral to the writer’s work. His approach is practical and based on years of success gaining access for his own projects. His personal experience is also evident in the chapter on tools of the trade, which reviews everything from digital recorders to how to organize materials such as interview transcripts. The reader benefits from an approach that is practical and grounded in real life. While he quotes many seasoned writers, such as Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, and Rita Dove, Gerard also shares his personal expertise.
A series of chapters examines in detail how to deal with specific kinds of research materials and sources: archives, the internet (with the now-familiar warnings about the unreliability of Wikipedia), and something that Gerard calls “the archives of memory, imagination and personal expertise.” Writers of memoir will find this last bit particularly helpful. Among the very useful advice shared is the suggestion that writers can cross-reference their personal story with newspaper accounts and other official records of the day. Gerard also urges writers not to “paper over discrepancies” between remembered events and researched accounts, but to use the contrasting accounts to their advantage in exploring what may have happened.
A chapter on “The Warm Art of the Interview” provides many useful tips about how to conduct an interview that is more conversation than interrogation. Gerard also explores how to gain information and insights by actually visiting locations and examining objects, from guns to vintage jewelry. He includes practical advice on troubleshooting and fact checking. It is noteworthy that he also spends time discussing how a writer can deal with stress that may result from dealing with emotionally charged material and sensitive interviews.
Many authors writing a book about research would end it once all of the tips and tricks have been covered. Gerard is to be commended for an approach that, from the very first pages, is sensitive to the fact that the point of all of this research is to produce a piece of writing. He closes the book with craft-focused advice on how to breathe life into the research one has done and translating it onto the page. Writers will find time-honored advice about including sensory details, developing narrative voice, and how to write a scene that one has not witnessed firsthand.
Every page of The Art of Creative Research is filled with examples of books, poems, and essays in which research was key to their success. The fact that all genres are covered makes Gerard’s book an especially valuable craft book — and one that is well worth consulting.
Vicki is the editor of the magazine at Wilkes University, where she also teaches adult creative nonfiction workshops and a class about the power of story for freshmen.