Of peacocks and pianos

May 14th, 2012

I read this post on Sandra Beasley’s blog a couple of weeks ago, about writing about more than what is already inside your head, about infusing your writing with information gleaned from research. Beasley wrote about the peacocks at the zoo near where she lives, and how seeing the peacocks led her to read about peacocks – to research peacocks – so that when she sat down to write a poem about peacocks she actually knew something about peacocks. (In this spirit, Marge Piercy once told me the best books a writer can own are field guides.) Beasley wrote in her post, in what is possibly the best pithy summation ever: “Write what you know, yes. But know things beyond your own navel.” (Go read the whole post, it’s worth it).

That came back to me today as I was reading Andrea Barrett’s short story “The Particles” in the current issue of Tin House. The story involves more genetics and the intellectual development of the field of genetics – the story hinges on the science of genetics – than she possibly could have “known” until she went looking to know it so that her story might ring true. So that her story could exist at all, frankly. And now, as I’m writing this, a line in the acknowledgements of Claudia Emerson’s poetry collection Figure Studies comes to mind: “and a special thanks to Bruce Dalzell, who burned a piano for me on the banks of the Hocking River in Athens, Ohio, so I could conduct research.”¬†She burned a piano. For, presumably, the poem “Piano Fire” in Figure Studies, in which the burning of the piano occupies ten lines of a thirty line poem, Claudia Emerson found somebody to burn a piano for her, so that she could write lines like this

when true ivory burns the flame is playful,
quick and green. And in the ash, last lessons:

and get the colors right.

Let’s get the colors right, people. Poets, essayists, fiction writers of all stripes: let us burn our figurative pianos.


2 Responses to “Of peacocks and pianos”

  1. Trish on May 15, 2012 4:55 am

    Thank you! That is such good advice. I am at the stage with my book where I have done all the writing I can do just by trolling through my life experience and using my imagination. Now I have to do some research, add some facts. Just this week, I googled Most Popular Danish Boys Names 1975. And looked up articles on unfair dismissal laws. And researched resorts in Thailand. The trick, I suppose, is to not put so much factual stuff into your story that it bores the reader to tears. A few lines, ‘show don’t tell’, is what I’m aiming for.

  2. Gerry Wilson on May 15, 2012 3:56 pm

    What true and lovely observations. I’m a fiction writer. My second novel has required a good bit of research (set in the World War I era), and I’ve learned much more than I could ever incorporate into the book. I’ve also learned it’s important to do what Claudia Emerson does so beautifully in those lines: to pull in the details so they serve the poem or story without being heavy-handed. Such a nice example.

    This is my first visit here (thanks, Lara Britt, for the heads-up). I look forward to coming back and reading more.

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