A few weeks ago, I began researching the Whiskey Rebellion as background for a book. These protests, sometimes violent, against the imposition of an excise tax on whiskey took place between 1791 and 1794 on the frontier of the original colonies. My discussion of these events will likely be a few lines in one paragraph, if I mention them at all.
I have spent many decades writing, until recently, almost exclusively within the confines of my job as a lawyer. Research is required for much of that writing, but I know how to find what I need and how to use the information effectively. Most importantly, I know when to stop, when I have enough material. Only rarely do I read what I do not need. These days, I work on my own writing full-time, and I find that my curiosity, unleashed from the tethers of my day job, takes me deeper and further afield than is strictly necessary. I feel compelled to know more. Mostly, free of any guard rails, I enjoy stumbling on to things I find interesting.
I found Thomas P. Slaughter’s The Whiskey Rebellion, a detailed but slender volume. The events make a good story, fascinating on their own account, but I’d planned to skim through much of the book to get to the legal aftermath of the affair. Slaughter’s description of the divides between urban and rural, manufacturing and agricultural interests, the frontier settlers and the eastern elite, seem critical to understanding the events of the late eighteenth century. And the political divisions Slaughter describes between those who favored a strong central government and those who would leave more power to the states or to limit the role of government of any type, not to mention enslavement and the geographic divisions—north and south, east and west—have shaped much of our history.
I stopped trying to skim and read more carefully, and I took detailed notes, marking the pages I needed to go back to. The parallels to current events are striking. I found passages that would require few changes—names or other identifying details—to describe America in the twenty-first century. I put off deciding what to include or not include. I was happy to wander, to think, to explore, to better understand the forces that have shaped us.
Each day as I listened to the news, I felt I understood more and more about the roots of our divided country. I considered the path I had taken, interesting but not really advancing my project. I decided to do a little research into doing research. I found some helpful tips, ostensibly directed at academic essays: look for background material, develop a research plan, survey the available materials, narrow your search by defining what you expect to find, skim the material, scan the material, read the material, evaluate what you have found. Or this helpful suggestion: allow enough time. Not exactly on point.
I turned to writers on writing. How do writers of non-fiction stop themselves from becoming engrossed by long and costly detours from the central themes of their work. I was unsure of what I thought I would find in professional writers’ books. A formula, a magic potion, or at least rules of thumb? I suppose if a writer gets to the point that they author a book about writing, the problem has not seriously interfered with their productivity. Perhaps I would find the answer in Robert Caro (might as well aim high!). His books require prodigious amounts of research, and his work habits are legendary (as he describes it, his goal is to write one thousand words per day—all on an electric typewriter—and which he records on a chart kept on the inside door of his closet). The subtitle of Caro’s book Working is “Researching, Interviewing, Writing” after all. I read the book when it came out and was blown away by the depth of his research (or rather, as he himself describes it, he and his wife, Ina, to whom Working is dedicated, do together).
If Caro had the problem I have, he does not seem to address it or reveal how to avoid it. Instead, he describes completing research on the human cost of one of Moses’ major highway projects, the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway through long-established neighborhoods in the Bronx but only because he “…just couldn’t write the book about the great highway builder—couldn’t outline it, even—without showing the human cost of what he had done.” His research was driven by the story, not the other way around. I get that. But if I am going to chase down every interesting story along the way, maybe I should just accept that and follow my instincts.
Perhaps John McPhee might have the answer (if I am going to aim high, I might as well keep shooting!). Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process doesn’t exactly get me there but I might be able to work with it. In the book, McPhee is obsessed with structure and describes his process in his usual engaging and elegant language. He says, “You begin with a subject, gather material, and work your way to structure from there. You pile up volumes of notes and then figure out what you are going to do with them, not the other way around.” Of course. Think like a writer. Everything might be a subject or of use in a piece of writing you have not yet even conceived of. That is likely the wrong takeaway, but here I am, doing just that.
As it happened, one afternoon as I was working my way through Slaughter’s book, I took a break and started reading Janis, Holly George-Warren’s recent biography of Janis Joplin. One of the pictures in the book was of Janis with her friend, the singer-songwriter Eric Andersen, whom I recalled seeing as a young concertgoer several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His wonderful song “Thirsty Boots” always moves me when I hear it. I wondered what had happened to him: Is he still alive? Has he been making music all these years? I started snooping online and found that PBS had aired a documentary on him just a few years ago, available for streaming. Two hours later, I knew a whole lot more about Eric Andersen but had gotten no further on the book proposal. Two hours I may have moved the work forward significantly, or at least finished with the Whiskey Rebellion. But other than nagging guilt, I feel a better person for the learning.
I think I know how to go forward with my writing. I have worked hard and in a really directed way for decades. Now is the time for me to follow my curiosity, wherever and however long it takes, enjoy the search, discover my passion. And who knows what might become the subject for a book or an article. So on to the Neutrality Crisis (I know, I barely remember that either), then I may jump forward to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, the many crises of our lifetimes. If I keep this up, I may still be working on the proposal, or even the introductory chapter, years from now, happy to give in to my curiosity and much better informed but without a book to show for my efforts.
Photo by Caroline Prysyazhnyuk, used and adapted under CC.