Talking it Out: With Experts

Back in April, I posted about my rejection of the the old “don’t-talk-about-your-book” bromide. Recently, Nik Riptrazone took up the subject again over at The Millions, which rekindled my interest in the core ideas of that post. I also wanted to push a few of those ideas along.

Riptrazone’s post represents one of the most common beliefs about creative process, namely that it’s primarily done by lone geniuses. This goes back at least as far as the Romantic poets, but I just don’t buy it. Our creative communities and networks are real, vibrant, and important. Creativity doesn’t flourish in a vacuum.

In his post, Riptrazone describes an encounter with a professor which led to a discussion of writing. As he began talking about a work in progress, the professor held up his hand and said that people should never talk about a book until it hits the shelf, or they’ll kill it. In this essay, and in everything I’ve read on this idea, no one ever describes exactly how talking about your project kills it.

Riptrazone says:

If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

But this doesn’t explain what talking does. When we’re told to cough into our sleeve, it’s obvious how that keeps us from showering the room with tiny, moist, viral droplets. What people have to say about not talking about your work reveals no deleterious process. They only say it’s bad, and it will have bad results. Here’s the thing: a book is supposed to belong to the world. Writing is an act of communication, and as far as communication goes, you can’t do it alone, not without people looking at you funny.

I don’t think you should sequester yourself. Even deliberating juries get to talk to each other. But this isn’t what I want to discuss. The comments sections of the internet have this handled.

I’d like to revisit the idea that conversation, interaction, and sharing are generative. They help us create. More specifically, they help us work around our own patterns and avoid cliché. In the previous post, I focused on using conversation to generate ideas. This time, I’m thinking about how interactions with others is a profound and important way to conduct research.

Normally we see research portrayed as a solitary endeavor: one person against stacks and shelves of information trying to locate the needle in a haystack. With grit, focus, and fortitude the researcher will find lost and forgotten gems of information, notice patterns, and verify important truths. This is how it was presented to me in the research methods course I took for my PhD.

Stills from Call Northside 777 (1948).

But there is another method of research. It is common, but overlooked. In fact, this approach has been maligned by the many in my academic field (revered in others). This is the model of the reporter, detective, or social scientist. Conversation and interaction are primary tools for people who move about in the world asking questions. They get people talking, and then they listen.

The research I do for my fiction involves information I’m often not familiar with, so it’s difficult for me to have a clear sense of the key terms and concepts that would allow me to navigate traditional information systems, even some of the amazing ones given to us by databases and machine learning algorithms. Sometimes I only have a broad and imprecise sense of what I want to know, and I’m looking for a deeper kind of serendipity, one where I only know that there must be something there, but I have no idea what it is, or only the vaguest notion of what it might be.

One of the most complex epistemological sets is the category of “things I know must exist but have not been able to find or identify.”

Conversations with experts has consistently been the best approach for me to positively identify and learn about things I know must exist but don’t know how to find.

As I’ve been drafting my current novel project, I have sought out doctor friends to ask medical questions on their understanding of the physician’s duty of care and their thoughts and feelings on Good Samaritan laws. I’ve taken anthropology professors to lunch to learn about ethics of archeological digs. I asked the president of my university (a former prosecutor) about a complex legal question about how prosecutions work across multiple jurisdictions. And a few days ago, I interviewed a former student with a Master’s Degree from the Glasgow School of Art about the philosophical underpinnings of museum curation.

In order for this particular conversation to proceed, I had to tell Debra about my book: plot basics and some character information. This provided a framework for our discussion of the key principles, epistemologies, and guiding practices of museum curators. I told her one of my characters was a curator, and I needed to learn enough so I could begin some of my own deeper research. I didn’t know enough about museum work to do anything more than skim the surface, which I knew would lead to cliche. She was worried that she wasn’t going to share anything useful, and I assured her that I didn’t know what I wanted her to share, but I would know it the instant she said it.

The conversation was inspiring.

YOU ARE SIMPLY THE.png

We spent close to an hour going back and forth about the differences between artifacts and specimens, accumulations and collections. We talked about the curatorial impulse and how provenance was everything, that provenance was more important, in some cases than the artifact itself. Once she got going, she starting making the most amazing associations, recalling things she hadn’t prepared, making new connections on the fly. I would ask follow up questions, which took us deeper into unplanned and uncharted territory.

This give and take, which (as I’ve said) involved me talking about my book, was an amazing process. From that conversation, I felt I was finding new and interesting, and most importantly, non-cliche ideas about this book. As a by-product of this exchange, (specifically the part about auction catalogues) I had a revelation about the book’s epilogue. Was I planning an epilogue? No, not until the very point in our conversation when I experienced what I can only call an epiphany.

This entirely brand new idea hit me out of the blue, completely formed, as a result of me not hiding my unfinished book in a hole.

When you are minding your own business, keeping your book on the down low, this kind of thing doesn’t happen much. In the end, I’m of the belief that this taboo against sharing your book is a lot like kidnapping a person and keeping them locked in the basement. Or maybe it’s like those hogs confined to sterile facilities where they fatten unnaturally and can only be kept healthy with constant injections of antibiotics.

It’s okay to share your work and interact with others. Your book isn’t going to disappear if you talk about it or your process, which an organic, evolving thing that needs a nourishing environment in which to thrive. As John Donne wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

_____________________________

Todd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddrobertpetersen.com and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

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