A Day in the Life
Somewhere around the middle of the semester, I set my undergraduate fiction writers a task: write 1-2 pages about someone engaged in a job you’ve never done. Make it feel very real–and to do that, you’ll have to do research. Every semester I get pages about doctors and archaeologists, baristas, cashiers, butchers, mortuary workers. Some of the sketches read flatly, and I know before skimming down to the bottom of the page that the student hasn’t written the paragraph I asked for about their research because they didn’t do any, or that instead they were hoping that a sort of research-by-osmosis would be good enough. I know what they were thinking, because afterwards some of them have told me: My parent is a doctor (or engineer, or teacher), so I already know enough to write a convincing scene of a character doing their work. But most of the time, that isn’t enough–you can get the general outlines of a job by hearing about it over the dinner table (or by watching television portrayals), but often that isn’t enough. What’s missing from these unresearched sketches is the cold touch of picking up a metal instrument, the hiss a cadaver drawer opening, the meaty smell that comes when a body is cut open. It’s these details that make a fictional world come alive. If we can feel what a character touches, and hear what they hear (not just speech, which so many beginning writers focus on, but the smaller sounds too), and smell what they smell, then we are right there with them–in the morgue, or the archaeological dig, or the coffee stand. When my students have written a draft of their research assignment, I have them do a very different piece of writing. I send them out of the classroom with the instructions to find a spot, close their eyes, and simply pay attention for five minutes. What do they hear? What do they smell? Or feel? When they come back, they must write capture their experience in a paragraph or so. Then–when we’ve read these experiences, and we’ve come to the understanding that there is so very much more to our human experience of the world than sight–then I have them read back over their work assignment to weave in the details that will make it come alive. Of course, for those who haven’t done the research, they have nothing but their imagination to inspire them, though that can help; for those who’ve done the research, their writing comes to glorious life, like Dorothy stepping out of her house and into Oz.