Research Notes · 11/28/2014

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Erika T. Wurth writes about Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend from Curbside Splendor.

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Research, an Animal you Bang your Head Against

Man, research is hard. Writing a novel is hard, it turns out. It took me over a decade, mainly because though I can’t say I’m one of those writers who is doing anything super-innovative with form, I’m much more interested in language and character, when it comes to writing a story. I had learned that writing a story had to be led by character — if you don’t know who your characters are, deeply, and how they interact with one another and what their dark damages are with one another, how can you root them out, make the story come to the kind of climax that has meaning? But it turns out, when it comes to sustaining a story for 80,000 words, this is a different animal. An animal I had to knock my head against, over and over, until one day, poor and crazy mainly from graduate school debt, I was watching The Truman Show and doing the exercise bike and I had a revelation as to how to fix the novel (I feel this counts as research).

Certainly, a lot of the novel is taken from my life, from life that I knew growing up. And then of course I made a ton of shit up. But even a novel like this takes research. It takes me calling hospitals and cops and asking them questions. It takes Googling (oh man, yay Google), it takes asking your mother questions, asking your friends questions, walking into the restaurant where all the guys who used to have mullets (OK, still often do) who made fun of you for reading, having all of your teeth, and not having a baby are now having coffee after their latest stint as volunteer fireman. And realizing that they don’t recognize you, they don’t care. But that you do, and in a really weird way, and that you need to sit with your one childhood friend who was also a big reader and mullet-less, and drink coffee for hours and really LOOK. I mean, LOOK.

I think my biggest frustration with research is that because I’m a creative writer, my scholar friends think that I sit down in front of my computer and just type really fast, as my wonderful, sweeping emotions compel me, and my muse whispers in my ear all the right words. Sorry dudes, but no way. Mainly it’s years of 80% drudgery, because the right words escape me. Or you think they’re the right words, but no, it turns out they’re not. But also because you know what also counts as research? Reading. Reading a TON. Reading all the time, because that is part of my job as a writer. There is joy in it, but there is also a way in which, if I’m not engaged, deeply, with all that is out there, there is no way I can call myself a writer. It’s like saying you’re a musician that doesn’t listen to music. Man, I don’t want to hear THAT guy play.

I also have to research presses, magazines, what they like, what they don’t like, who they publish. And there are a ton. And it takes many, many submissions to get even one publication, which is true for anyone, because there are so many writers, and though there are ones that I might not dig, there are loads and loads of good ones. REALLY good. And because I’m a Native American woman, some of those magazines, which are often (think nearly never) not run by Native American/women (especially powerful magazines), there is often this really strange feeling that because I am a minority, everyone is looking to publish minorities, no matter how crappy our work is, because… logic? But I have gotten thousands of rejections over the course of a decade. And if you want to conclude that it is because I am a crappy writer, cool, we don’t have to hang out. But what also blows for me, is that even when I find magazines that have published Native American women, I don’t often sound like those guys, even though I love their work and am friends with many of them. My work does not take place on a reservation, my characters are drug dealers or gay or black and Indian, and they drop the F-bomb. Because where I come from, that’s everyone’s favorite bomb.

My other frustration is that because I’m a fiction writer, because I do write about what I come from, people assume that my work is 100% me. No. Actually, I’m not sixteen. Or a drug dealer. Or pregnant. But some of the folks around me were. The thing is, if I were to write autobiographically, it would be insanely boring. Day one: ate peas. Watched Simpsons. Day two: repeat. So the amount of research I have to do to excavate my childhood is large. First of all, all I wanted was OUT. And I got out, and I’ve never lived in Evergreen or Idaho Springs, Colorado (the two towns I grew up in-between) since. Though I visit, and lived in Boulder, which isn’t far away. And growing up, my head was in a dragon book perpetually, to try to escape spiritually what I couldn’t escape physically. It’s just that, as I grew up and away, I had to realize a couple of things. I was from where I was from, and it formed me, like it or not. I had to realize that though Denver is a place where so, so many Natives come to live, there are no Native writers that I know of, talking about the mix of cultures that I grew up in, and there needs to be. So I guess that’s me? Poor Denver.

So ultimately, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, my novel about Idaho Springs, where I went to school, where I made friends (OK, one), where I grew up for the most part, is a novel that I did massive research for. Isn’t being a writer strange? Isn’t being human strange?

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Erika T. Wurth’s novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, has just been released by Curbside Splendor. Her collection of poetry, Indian Trains, was published by The University of New Mexico’s West End Press. A writer of both fiction and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.