Bad Advice Wednesday: Research Creatively (and Empathetically)

categories: Bad Advice


Larry Bird

A broom

We don’t use sports metaphors here at Bill and Dave’s.  Well, we try not to.  Or at least one of us tries.  But the other one (me) has frequent lapses and it so happens that I feel another one coming on now.  Please bear with me.

It was right before the 1981 NBA finals, Larry Bird’s first.  The Celtics were playing the Houston Rockets, which meant that they were facing two giants (for more on giants see  Life Among Giants) in Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwan and Ralph Sampson.  Sampson, at 7’4”, would sometimes be guarding Bird and, as I remember it, the sports writer Bob Ryan reported that one day he walked out to find Bird taking dozens of baseline jumpshots over a man who was holding a broom up as high as he could.  The broom, of course, was meant to simulate Ralph Sampson’s outstretched arm.  The takeaway from the story, according to Ryan, was that Bird even practiced more creatively than other people.

Why did this pop into my mind?  Not only because I like to annoy Bill by using lots of sports metaphors.  But also because I have been in the research phase of my new book, and I have been thinking about ways that I can research more creatively, and effectively.   I have heard stories about writers who see research as a period of happy procrastination, who love to hole up with their notecards and files and new pens and spend hours in the library reading every book and manuscript they can about the development  of the cattle industry in southeast Texas.  If these stories are true, I am happy for the practitioners and envy them their serenity.   But for me that kind of work leads to a kind of intellectual sluggishness, a state of mind where writing the actual book begins to seem impossible.                 Instead I prefer to have someone hold up a broom.  That is I prefer to research creatively.  How so?  Well, by varying things for one.  By not building a wall between RESEARCH and WRITING but by allowing for a book I read to spur a morning or two of writing (usually in my journal) even if that doesn’t fit in the Great Master Plan.  Or, if enervated by the need to read another 500 page book on the history of the frontier, allowing myself to spend a morning conducting phone interviews with other human beings.  The point, for me, is to keep the juices flowing, even when the work is dry.  The point is to not make a bunch of rigid rules that I know I’m going to break.  (Though the making and then breaking of personal rules actually can create a lot of creative energy.)

Let me give a more specific example.  Central to the book I’m now working on is the need to do deep biographical research on two writers, Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner.  That means reading what they wrote, what people wrote about them, reading their letters and journal notes, interviewing their friends and relatives.   All that is vital, but all that is really just preparation for an imaginative act, an act that is just as creative as creating a character for a novel.  All that preparation is bolstering, readying for a sustained act of empathy.

So.   The other day I was driving in one direction and a woman was driving a station wagon in the other direction.  She had a look of consternation on her face, and might have even been talking to herself.  I found myself wondering “What is it like to be inside that person’s mind?”  What is her subjective experience of the world?  What neurotic circles does her mind turn in?  What habitual patterns reoccur?  How does she break from them?

Can we ever understand what the world is like for another person?  Can we ever experience their particular flavor of mind?  I came home and turned those same questions on Abbey and Stegner.  I didn’t look at books or turn on my computer.  I just sat down in my writing shack with a drawing pad in my lap, trying to imagine myself inside their heads.  Words did not pour out.  But a few feelings did.  There was something slouchy and melancholy about being inside Abbey’s mind, while what I felt inside Stegner was a briskness, a sense of movement, as if he needed to keep in movement to stay above or away from the same melancholia.   I tried to remain inside them for a while but it wasn’t easy.

Now it’s back to the books.  I’m not ready for the larger act of empathy yet.  But it gave me a hint of things to come.  And though I didn’t take a note or learn a single fact, I still consider it  part of my research.



  1. monica wood writes:

    This is a great metaphor, David. The original twin towers! Wasn’t it these two that Johnny Most called “McFilthy and McNasty”? Though Hakeen was never a thug, so maybe it was someone else.

    • Dave writes:

      That was Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland of the Bullets, but I had to google to remember Ruland. (Couldn’t forget Mahorn.)

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Sounds like you are on the right track . Samuel Johnson would approve.

  3. Bill writes:

    How about some war metaphors? Or disease/medical? Love the idea of trying to actually be Stegner, Abbey–you’re like a virus working your way into the brain of a drone pilot seated somewhere in Arizona, this guy about to rain death down upon a wedding somewhere in Afghanistan, but instead, see, this virus makes him think, no, no. This simply costs too much! And etc. Love imagining the Bird leaping at the broom. They who work hardest usually get the win. Unless it’s the NFL.