The Occult Thrill of Research
by Mike Sauve
Norman Mailer called writing “The Spooky Art.” It is spookiest for me when I type a word without overt knowledge of its meaning, and upon Googling that word it makes perfect sense in the context I’ve used it. Presumably, I have either read or heard that word when I was paying scant attention. While there’s nothing spooky about the subconscious encoding of information, that information’s eventual reassertion at the conscious level can certainly feel that way. It goes beyond words: entire concepts and situations I’ve read about years ago often fortuitously reappear at the crux of narrative pressure. This is not luck. Those words and concepts would never be available to me as outputs if they hadn’t once been inputs.
If maximizing these inputs sounds like the domain of the non-fiction writer, or like a homework assignment, or too far afield from the creative life you’ve chosen, this article will show how research doesn’t have to be the domain of the poor-postured fellow burning the midnight oil at the library, glasses forever sliding down the crook of his nose, attractive members of the opposite sex knocking books out of his hands in the hallway—rather, it is the domain of the active and engaged individual who is trying to get the most out of life.
I’ve always been a fickle reader. I’ll never understand people who must finish a book once they’ve started. There are far too many significant books to read for even the most curatorially-discerning reader to possibly get to. Stanley Kubrick would choose books from his library at random because of this very understanding. He knew that he wasn’t going to read all the books he wanted to in his life, so why waste any extra time picking and choosing. Look around you and notice the world is full of books. They sit in massive institutions, some untouched for decades if not centuries. They are in your grandmother’s attic. They abut the large doily departments in the massive chain bookstores. This may be sacrilegious to tell a readership of writers, but I often go to Indigo (the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble), and after resting briefly in the bedware section, I take pictures of interesting books so that I can I order them from the library. My money tends to go to used book stores. I have a hypothesis that all the books you’re meant to read in a lifetime are waiting to manifest themselves in the dollar bin. If you go to the bookstore or Amazon with a subject in mind, you’ll never get too far outside the boundaries of what you already know. Let fate play its hand and you will be taken in new and strange directions.
Even for those with the time to read, phone-based distractions alone make it increasingly difficult to physically read for extended periods. Here’s where audiobooks come in. Some audiobook consumers complain that they struggle to maintain focus. I’d counter that, for my purposes, it doesn’t matter if I catch everything. Much like the arcane dollar bin offering, relevant passages have a way of grabbing my attention, while what’s superfluous is mere background noise that keeps my negative thought cycles down to a dull roar. More importantly, audiobooks make quotidian daily life feel like a part of the writing routine. Commuting to work is no longer a tedious thief stealing time from your writerly pursuits. Now this otherwise dreary process is contributing to them. Some of the more pencil-necked variants of the writerly species have a natural antipathy towards the grunting meatheads at the gym, but I can assure you there is nothing more rewarding than pursuing gains while learning the things you need to learn to make your novel as good as it can be.
Traditional research can feel like muh gains in its own right. I feel pretty darn self-actualized with a stack of books a dozen-high at the reference library. Don’t get me started on the ego-salving pleasures of requesting a roll of microfiche or making a stacks request. And it probably doesn’t need to be said that a giant reference library is the most mysterious dollar bin in the world. I believe these simple acts of apprenticeship build more confidence for novice writers than all the fraudulent #amwriting hashtags in the world. I’ve got a status update for you: if you’re tweeting #AmWriting you aren’t writing. You are tweeting.
The book I recently finished, The Many Fentanyl Addicted Wraiths of Sault Ste. Marie, contains a number of subjects I was not well-versed in: from broad areas like local history and the opiate epidemic to more specific details involving the scientific process of erosion. With the opiates and the history, I was happy to dive as deep as possible. I listened to Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic and Dopesick and read New York Times features on the opiate epidemic that were closer to non-fiction novel than magazine article. This never felt like work. I was writing a book about the opiate epidemic because I am concerned and angered by the opiate epidemic. It’s set in my hometown because I am unhealthily fixated upon my hometown. Every gap in understanding presented a challenge that I was eager to meet. I didn’t know where I’d find all the answers because I didn’t even know the questions. But whenever I found the right spool of microfiche or a dusty old pamphlet on Sault Ste. Marie in the Depression, I felt like I’d done some “high level problem solving with dire physical consequences” as erudite meathead Joe Rogan is fond of saying, even if the consequences never really amounted to anything more than embarrassing myself by getting something wrong or leaving something out. With the erosion, yeah I just Googled some stuff about erosion. That’s cool too.
Of course there is a danger of relying too heavily on your research. If I quoted every statistic I came across on the opiate epidemic, every captivating quote from a musty old volume, not only would it be wonkish and boring, but it would be the most dreadful type of arrogance—that of the windbag. However, I did occasionally come across words or concepts so interesting, such as nociceptive pain in The Many Fentanyl Addicted Wraiths of Sault Ste. Marie, that I can’t help but include them, even if it’s not worth devoting extra paragraphs to explaining all the nociceptional ins and outs. I’ve always hated when editors or beta readers say, “I had to look this up. The reader wouldn’t know what this means.” That’s kind of the point here. I read stuff all the time and I don’t know what it means. Then I read more about it. Then I know what it means.
But hopefully, the reader won’t think too much about the sausage being made. They probably won’t care that I got the erosion details correct. Or hopefully they’ll think something subconsciously themselves, such as, “Boy that guys knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff.” I can recall thinking this when I first read Infinite Jest, which, despite its co-opting by the unwashed hipster masses, remains no less towering an accomplishment twenty years after its publication. And so but then I learned more about David Foster Wallace and realized that he basically spent his life in libraries. He begins that book with the words:
“I read,” I say. “I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”
In other words, even encyclopedic novels aren’t written by people with encyclopedic brains. They’re written by people with encyclopedias in front of them. And the bygone encyclopedias of yesterday behind them.
Remember I told you about words popping into my head that had the exact meaning I required of them. My next novel will address the thought experiment of Roko’s Basilisk, which in good conscious I must encourage you not to Google. The line that popped into my head was Non-Linear Causality is the Demon of this World. At the time I must have half-known how non-linear causality would be defined, but upon Googling it, Complexity Labs defined it as, “a form of causation where cause and effect can flow in a bidirectional fashion.” In other words, the future is capable of influencing the past. This is essentially what Roko’s Basilisk is all about. And it’s perhaps what was happening when David Foster Wallace was reading about game theory as an undergraduate. That future Eschaton scene in Infinite Jest was writing itself years before it would ever be written. The thrill of research is that its fruits manifest themselves by means of the writer’s accumulated knowledge. The occult thrill of research is that this knowledge appears to have an acausal desire to manifest itself.
Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, Variety, and elsewhere. His short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s and many other publications. He is the author of three books with Montag Press: The Wraith of Skrellman, The Apocalypse of Lloyd, and most recently I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore, which Publisher’s Weekly called “A Philip K. Dick plot as channeled by a delirious Hunter S. Thompson.”