On Research 🖊
Writing as cleaning up a mess.
Mess has been my word for the last few months, maybe longer. It describes my approach to nearly everything: cooking, recipe development, identity, photography, and—indeed, perhaps most of all—research. By mess, I don’t mean something like a spill on the floor to be mopped up, nor do I mean an entangled mass of cords to untie. I mean starting from a place of curiosity, of unknowing, on one subject and following all the places it leads. I mean not trying to organize an approach from above, but leading with intuition toward any route that opens up and not worrying about what happens in the interim. I’m talking about something similar I’ve written about before, I realize, which I called gleaning—a different practice, one that is about being in the world rather than in search of answers to any specific query.
This is basic, I suppose. When I want to write an essay, like next week’s “On Creativity,” I start with a question. In this case, it’s what does a creative life look like in the day to day? Chiefly for writers, as our work takes so long and requires so much seemingly extraneous research and experience. It is always ongoing, ever unfinished, and yet it must go out at some point (or must it?). I’ve noticed, passively, that my favorite writers who chronicle answers to this question have a relationship to visual art—whether looking, creating it, or photographing.
So I made a list of books and authors who I thought could help me address this question. I follow the threads of their references and citations elsewhere. I take pages and pages of notes in my notebook; I listen to podcasts on my walks; I sit with the readings and the ideas and, eventually, I sit down to write. By the time I sit down to write a short essay, specifically, I will ideally not look at my notes except briefly and I will go back to texts for specific quotes—the need for the quotes will basically burst into the text as I go. This sounds pretentious and likely is, but when I get to simmer an essay for a long time, it comes together with some ease. The natural deadlines of this newsletter also help. It is a kind of notebook of its own.
I began with wanting to think about the role of photos, notebooks, and journals in a writing practice. These are all things I’ve written about before, where they come into my work, but I wanted to look at more cohesive pieces. I wanted to return to Kate Zambreno’s Drifts as well as her Appendix Project; the former uses photography throughout as a matter of research and practice, and the latter does as well, in addition to having a fabulous paragraph about wanting to publish writing that has the feel of a notebook. An epigraph from Drifts sends me to the copy of Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter that I haven’t opened up in over a decade, another lifetime ago—there’s a clue for me in there, where the old me underlined something in pencil. I always want to revisit Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments when I am thinking about endless day-to-day process, so I go to them as well.
The significance of photography to Patti Smith’s writing cannot be overstated, and she recently put out A Book of Days. I like the idea of using social media not just (as I’ve called it before) as a commercial for my brain, but as an archive and something altogether separate, and in this text with short captions, she shows the relevance of photography and the visual to thinking and working with language. I bought Book of Days and the new translation of Kafka’s Diaries at the same time; I read the former straight through and have been skipping around the latter for months.
Kafka’s constant presence in the work and interviews of other writers I love becomes another thread for this essay: Why Kafka? Why doesn’t he go out of style? Why is he both wildly famous and a writer’s writer? These questions inform a new thread. I listen to interviews with the translator, Ross Benjamin, because I love to hear about the act of translation. I don’t know whether this will be useful.
I want to read Janet Malcolm’s Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory but I don’t connect with it at all, it’s not giving me what I want at this time, and so I move on to Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which is a collection of many published essays I’ve read online but can see anew in print. I notice the way Malcolm uses food when she’s writing about artists and editors; how food is a light tell about how she feels about people. There’s a line in the title essay, about the artist David Salle, that will provide the crux of my essay. I underline it; I share it on my Instagram story.
When I arrive to New York at JFK, I am free of luggage because I’d sent my clothes with my mom and sister after their visit. I take the J from Jamaica to Bowery and go on a walk, stopping at Goods for the Study and picking up two new-to-me types of black felt-tip pen (I only use black felt-tip pens now), a fresh bottle of my favorite perfume, and eventually visit the new McNally Jackson on Prince Street, where I buy Eileen Myles’ A “Working Life” even though it’s not supposed to be out yet. I open it up on the train out to Long Island, on my way to help blow up balloons for my cousin’s baby shower the next day, and one poem starts in a way that underscores everything I’ve been thinking about. I uncap one of my new pens. I underline.
As I read, as I do my work, as I go about my days, the word ekphrasis continues to come up. I read it everywhere: in edits on a piece I’ve written about an artist’s documentaries, in Instagram captions, on podcasts. I’ve certainly encountered it before, probably in college, but I haven’t encountered it since—this says something, maybe, about food writing—and so it seems like my research is telling me something, like I’m onto something, like these threads I’m grasping about the everyday in the endless work of a writing life (of an artist’s life) are leading to something, the role of the visual in the work of a writer, learning to see and to describe—where do we do that? In notebooks.
But I don’t know, this is just the mess I’m making. Next week, with any luck, I clean it up.
Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will be about a new monthly audio supplement featuring interviews with cookbook authors. I’ll let you know about the first four I have planned (they’re exciting) and give you all a chance to submit questions to these writers. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
I wrote an essay for the inaugural issue of Still Alive, a magazine about the surprisingly still alive things in our lives, in culture. Of course, I wrote about my hometown of Patchogue, New York. It’s online now, but please consider purchasing a print copy.
Eileen Myles’ A “Working Life”
Easter dinner but otherwise not much, as I spent last week in New York and Philadelphia! More on the trip forthcoming.