Research as Creative Practice

Jessica Wilbanks

Apr 30, 2021

Eudora Welty once said, “Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky.” That was always how I thought of research. Research was fact-checking. Research was stagnant. There was nothing creative about it. 

My approach changed ten years ago, when I started working an essay. The piece started with an image I couldn’t get out of my head—my father racing around the yard in the early moments of a thunderstorm, pulling blue tarps over the riding lawn mower and other vulnerable machinery. It didn’t seem like the makings of anything particularly interesting, but it had some weird emotional freight for me, so I started riffing off it and writing whatever came to mind. 

The piece gradually began centering around my father’s anger, and the impact it had on my family. I wrote about the way he used to rage when we were children, and how that same anger came out in my brothers and I. But there was no movement in the essay. I wasn’t coming to any conclusions. I wasn’t even posing any new questions. 

And then I stumbled onto the concept of entropy: the idea that everything in the universe eventually moves from order to disorder, and that this process is utterly irreversible. I was so drawn to the idea that I allowed myself to dive fully into the topic. I read scientific papers, studied the lives of the scientists who contributed to these ideas, and read about the character of Entropy in Marvel comics. I put all of that in the essay, and then found an entirely new shape. 

The best part of this whole experience was that the research process gave me an insight I hadn’t had before. It wasn’t until I read about the idea that, thanks to entropy, “all hots and colds will fizzle out, sweet and bitter will combine, and everything will become somewhat lukewarm,” that I recognized how, even as I had built a quieter, safer life as an adult, part of me missed that tumultuous aspect of my childhood.

In the end, that became the heart of the essay

When I reflect on that experience, the defining feature is that, for the first time, I used the process of research to discover something–to create something new–rather than to simply fill in detail. 

Part of my journey as a writer has been learning to trust my subconscious more than my intellect. As tempting as it can be to “think” your way through writing projects, most of us can benefit from using research to tap into a more intuitive and less cerebral impulse. 

Other News

Registration for the University of Houston’s Boldface Writing Conference (May 24-28) is now open, and it’s virtual this year. Featured writers include novelist, artist, and short story writer Ito Romo, poet and essayist Diane Goetsch, poet Donika Kelly, and essayist and memoirist Melissa Febos. The cost is very reasonable: only $150 if you sign up before May 2. It’s a terrific conference with lots of opportunities to connect with visiting writers. Click here to register. 

I really loved this article in BookPage by Sarah Sentilles: “11 Things I Wish I’d Known About Writing 11 Years Ago.” Her memoir Stranger Care, about her experience as a foster parent to an infant, will be out in just a few days. I’m looking forward to reading it. 

We moved this month (to Westbury, only ten minutes from where we were living in Montrose), which has gotten in the way of my spring migration plans, but I still managed to make it to the coast for a bit last week. The bird on the left is a Scarlet Tanager and the one on the right is a Hooded Warbler. Both pictures are from Lafitte’s Cove, an amazing migrant trap right in the middle of a housing development in Galveston.