Week 16

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

So I’ve begun work on the collection, the actual writing that is. It doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped researching by any means, but the research is now different. The part I began with is Muir, which means that I have to immerse myself in research about Muir.

Like a lot of writers, I began adulthood by getting a degree in literature. That’s not a bad idea, but doing that has its own set of problems. What you don’t realize as you’re going through it is that you’re getting a degree to be a reader, which is much different than being a writer. The two concepts don’t translate well.

One of the ideas that doesn’t come across well is research. For years, I tried to research my writing prompts in the same way that I researched my critical essays. I used literary journals and commentary on writers and events. These are all great, but they don’t give writers the kind of texture they need to write their work.

I still do that kind of database research, but it is one very small part of the other things that I do. After all, I need to get the texture of the characters and their worlds. So I’ve been rereading Muir’s work in an attempt to capture his personality. I’ve been watching documentaries and movies. I’ve been walking the Sierra Nevadas in his footsteps as much as I can, trying to smell what he smelled and feel what he felt.

The world has changed. Of course it has. Even the natural world. But if you get out on the trail into the backcountry where the mountains climb out of human consciousness, and you scramble up the face of a glacial boulder out where you aren’t supposed to go because of danger and isolation, if you get beyond human light and noise and just breathe, you can transport yourself back a hundred years. You get out there and look out over the hills and trees and dream about Muir, and you can almost hear his Scottish brogue.

That’s research too.