Research Notes · 02/17/2012

Everyone Remain Calm

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Megan Stielstra describes the lengths — and depths — she went to for the sake of a story.

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The Right Kind of Water

The first hour is great. I’m in the bathtub, submerged to my neck. The water is warm and lovely, I’m more relaxed than I’ve been in months, and the best part? — what I’m doing here is work. It’s rewriting. It’s research.

While finishing up final edits on my story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that one of the stories, “One One Thousand, Two One Thousand, Three,” wasn’t right. It was missing something. I read it over a thousand times and couldn’t pinpoint what bothered me, which is the fucking worst. If I can name the problem, I can fix it. I can go to my bookshelf, pull down the Marquez, the Tolstoy, the Hubert Selby or James Baldwin or Dorothy Allison and figure out the literary gymnastics necessary to make the damn thing work.

Here’s the gist: a 13-year-old girl, Eliza, is skinny-dipping in a quarry in Southeast Michigan. She thinks she’s alone, but turns out there’s a group of high school guys nearby getting drunk in the woods. They discover her. Threaten her. Trap her in that quarry like a cage and demand she get up so they can look at her. Like a lot of fiction — mine, at least — this is based on some semblance of a true experience, and what interested me the most as I wrote it was the tension. Would she stand or wouldn’t she? How would they react when she did or didn’t? How would she react to their reaction? — and on and on.

I teach creative writing classes, and what finally cracked the issue was a discussion my students and I had around a scene from Don DeGrazia’s American Skin. Alex, the main character, boards the el, all hell breaks loose, and then he gets off. “How much times passes between the on and off?” asked one of my students. “Like five minutes? How does the reader see those minutes passing?” and all of a sudden, I knew. In “One One Thousand,” the story starts when Eliza gets in the water, and ends when she gets out. But how much time passes between the two? I didn’t know. Later, rereading the story, I saw certain clues I’d placed unconsciously: at the beginning, the sun is high, warming the water, and by the end, it’s freezing and the stars are out. So that’s — what? 3pm to 8pm? Five hours? That’s a lot of time for somebody to be naked in the water. What happens to a body when it’s submerged for that long?

This is the point where, historically, I hit the library. I’m the stay up all night/drink too much coffee kinda girl, finding esoteric details in random books. Even now, with the internet, I still stalk libraries, milking electronic reserves for all their worth.

But.

I’d recently published a story set in a greenhouse. I wrote that greenhouse from memory — blah blah plants and trees — adding in fancy-sounding names pulled from the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Book of Plants. And then, not long after, I stopped by the Gethsemane Garden Center and realized my description had been totally, completely, utterly wrong. I’d forgotten the tropical temperature. The hoses full of pinpricks, spraying everything with a fine, hot mist. The ceiling of green, like a jungle, and I knew then that I needed to up my research game. If I could go there, I’d go. If I could do it, I’d do. If I could live it, I’d live.

So.

With no quarries in the immediate vicinity of Chicago and the late-fall chill already here, I decided on the bathtub. I would sit in the bathtub. For five hours. iPhone alarm set to count down the minutes, journal on the nearby toilet to take notes about my skin, my fingertips and toes, my teeth (chattering?). I had very vague, very naïve, very uninformed ideas of what would happen, and a silly sense of pride in what I was doing.

Research!

I was so totally a writer!

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In the second hour, my hands and feet are, predictably, wrinkled. The water is cold and draining slowly, down from neck-level to just below my breasts. More than anything, though, I’m bored. Usually, when I take baths to relax, I either read or prop my laptop precariously on the toilet to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer free-streaming on Netflix. But this? — here, in the bathtub? — this is not relaxation. This is research! Serious research! I’m experiencing what Eliza experienced, feeling what she felt, living what she lived! That’s what I tell myself, at least. The reality is that I’m safe at home in my bathtub and can get out any time I want. In order to really experience what Eliza experienced, I’d have to enter a situation in which I also feel trapped.

I’m fascinated by writers who engage experientially in research. I admire their commitment and worry for their safety. I think they’re profoundly courageous and batshit crazy. Whenever I bring this up, someone asks if I’m talking about Hunter S. Thompson — the drugs, The Hell’s Angels — but my personal case-in-point is far less well known. In fact, I have no idea if he ever published anything.

Again, the gist: I was at a techno club — black lights, strobe lights, relentless beat — and some guy asked if he could buy me a drink. I was a first-year Philosophy major (don’t ask) with a newly purchased fake ID. It was my first time in a real, grown-up bar. I ordered an Amaretto Stone Sour and as I took the first sip, he asked if he could be my slave for a week.

I asked him to please repeat the question.

“Can I be your slave?” he said, and, in response to the look on my face: “I’m a writer. I’m writing a collection of essays. In each one I’m someone’s slave for a week and I write about what they make me do.”

“What do they make you do?” I asked — and yes, I know, I was gullible as all hell and probably he was lying through his teeth, but who cared. It was the best, craziest, most awful story my eighteen-year-old self had ever heard. One woman prostituted him to her gay friends and kept the money. Another made him clean her house wearing only a saddle. A suburban couple filmed him setting fire to himself — “They made me pour lighter fluid in my hair,” he said, “like it was shampoo or something.”

“Why do you do all this stuff?” I asked, aghast. “Why not just imagine it?”

“You mean like fiction?” he said, like it was a bad word. “People don’t want fiction. They want the truth — the blood and guts and piss and shit.”

I didn’t have the wherewithal then to tell him how, for me, fiction is truth. I hadn’t yet lived enough, read enough, or dealt with enough writers in bars to be able to explain how a story — when it’s done right — can help you find yourself in others, share realities that can’t possibly be real, show a person or people or world that you never before imagined. Blood and guts and piss and shit? — sure, but joy and courage and hope and understanding, too.

The kicker is the when it’s done right.

Which is why I was sitting in the fucking bathtub.

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In the third hour, the water has drained below my hips, my knuckles and the soles of my feet are cracked like spiderwebbed glass. My dad is a fisherman in Alaska now and I think of the dead fish he pulls from the water, bloated and eerie blue. I think of all he taught me about appropriate wilderness behavior back when I was growing up in Michigan, camping and hunter safety and taking the canoe over waterfalls on the Shiawasee River. If he saw me now, sitting in this icy water for no discernible reason, he’d think I’d lost it entirely.

“It’s for a story,” I’d tell him.

He’d try hard to be sensitive. He’s a big reader, although one time he got pissed at Tom Wolfe for making a character go quail hunting with buckshot. “Does it have to be five hours?” he’d ask, rational and reasonable. “Can it maybe happen quicker?”

Could it? I thought of when the Eliza story actually happened to me, some two decades ago around my sixteenth birthday. The day was so beautiful, the water warm, I floated on my back, listening to my own breath underwater, in and out, in and out — and then suddenly they were there, first just one and then he called for the rest, six, maybe? seven? all standing at the edge of jagged rock, looking down at me trapped in a fishbowl below them. Instinctively, I locked myself into a ball and moved towards shallow water, low enough so I could stand but still high enough to shield how naked I was. God, the shame! When you’re sixteen! I’ve had so many relationships with my body — it’s been a source of power, hatred, pride, life — but that day in the quarry is the first time I felt shame.

How much time passed that day? Truly, I don’t remember. It could have been five minutes. It could have been five hours.

“Stand up,” they yelled. “We just want to see!”

“Stand up. We’re not gonna do anything to you!”

“Fucking stand up! Are you fucking deaf? — stand up!

— but I didn’t. I was frozen. I was terrified. I was ashamed. It was so much bigger than five minutes.

But five hours?

After five hours, I’d surely remember the water growing cold. My feet, split and cracked. My skin blue like fish. Wouldn’t I remember?

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In the fourth hour, I panic. The tub is nearly drained and my face is puffy, my hands swollen, my body heavy like a wet blanket. I’m remembering bits and pieces of biology lectures, articles from Scientific American, things dad said on the boat, out on the ocean where being smart might mean your life. What had he said about hypothermia? Didn’t I read something about Trench Foot? Muscle Atrophy — what was that? And didn’t David Blaine do this and his skin peeled off?

This is stupid, I decide. Even for me, and I’ve done some stupid shit. I did acid one time at the opera. And now I’m counting down the minutes, shivering in an empty bathtub? A bathtub! It’s not even the right kind of water! Eliza’s quarry is full of organisms! Minerals! The setting sun changes the water temperature! She is thirteen years old, I am thirty-five, and sixteen, too; all of us were in that quarry, the story changes with every telling, and — like Tim O’Brien being unable to remember the smell of the mud in Vietnam — I can’t for the life of me remember what happened to my skin that day in the quarry.

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By the fifth hour, I’ve given up. I’m on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. My body is too heavy; my head too light. I feel better after the first hot water and bourbon. Better after the second. And the third.

After a while, I get my laptop and google BEING UNDERWATER FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME. Then I start my research.

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Megan Stielstra is the author of the short story collection Everyone Remain Calm (Joyland/ECW) and the Literary Director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College and The University of Chicago, and lives online at www.meganstielstra.com.