Research Notes · 02/23/2013

What You Are Now Enjoying

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sarah Gerkensmeyer reveals the method behind the madness of her new collection What You Are Now Enjoying from Autumn House Press.

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Here’s the mess I got myself into while conducting research for my story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying:

  • nipple creams
  • bubble algae
  • exotic fruits and vegetables
  • Internet ads for sister wives, written by secular polygamists
  • hand-fishing for six-foot-long nest-guarding male catfish
  • tumors packed with bits of hair and teeth and fingernails (thank you, Margaret Atwood)
  • pipefish
  • the world’s largest wave pool
  • bare-chested female skin divers in ancient Japan
  • Wonder Woman

I’ve spent hours watching videos on Youtube and trolling chat rooms.  Google is now my middle name.  Each time I dive into new research, I become overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s available, no matter how random or strange the topic.  My notebooks become full of scattered, incomprehensible notes — a system of highlighting, asterisk-ing, crossing out and then circling again that I can’t follow.  Yet somehow the characters always manage to claw their way out of that chaos, pushing aside my feverishly recorded facts and insisting that they are what’s most important — screw the facts.

What is it that draws some of us toward creative research, this penchant for learning something new and strange?  Maybe it’s an impulse to try to tell the same stories that we humans keep telling over and over again in a fresh way.  And so I pair infidelity with six-foot-long monster catfish.  I pair a family that is falling apart with a talking, eloquently philosophical five-month-old.  I pair loss and grief with invisible soul twins.  I pair the experience of coming of age with Wonder Woman (the cartoon-colored version) hanging out with her high school girlfriends at a dank airport bar in the middle of nowhere Nebraska.  And through this process of creative research, I’ve found that my short stories are a natural resting point for the strange and the surreal.  My stories act as a funnel, dropping out intensely concentrated bits and pieces of the weird.         

While compiling my short story collection, I was also conducting research for and writing my novel in progress, which is about a young woman with a severe heart defect (she basically has only half of a heart).  The research for my novel has felt so different from the poking around that I do for short stories.  I’ve become immersed in a world of anatomy and surgical procedures and the kind of grief and loss that I don’t think any one of my short stories could quite hold.  I have interviewed patients and the family members of patients and physicians and museum curators.  I flew out to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to meet with Dr. Carole Warnes, one of the world’s preeminent experts on congenital heart disease.  She took me to a nice dinner, and I kept pulling out my notes from my rounds with her earlier that day, asking her to go over statistics and dosages and incision sites one more time.  Dr. Warnes was patient, and she went over everything once again.  But then she said something wonderful, something that I’ve been waiting to hear, I realize now, for a very long time.  Something like, “The facts and the details are important, yes.  But when it comes down to it, they shouldn’t get in the way.  This is your story to tell.”

And to reassure myself that my idea of creative research is okay — this gathering of facts and numbers and details and then using only what the story doesn’t turn its nose up at — I remind myself of Tim O’Brien’s thoughts about happening-truth versus story-truth.  Sometimes the exact precision of what has happened in our lives needs to be set to the side a little bit, allowing the emotional core of the story-truth to rise to the surface of the narrative and grab us by the throat.

Yes — I am drawn toward strange, unfamiliar things.  I’m interested in topics that I know little to nothing about.  But all of it somehow ends up feeling like home to me.  I’ve managed to write myself back here each and every time.

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Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O’Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, Sarah has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ragdale, Grub Street, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her stories have appeared in Guernica, The New Guard, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Cream City Review, among others. Sarah is the 2012-13 Pen Parentis Fellow. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University and now teaches creative writing at State University of New York at Fredonia.