Last week I went down to New York for a day and a half to do research for the novel I tell people I’m working on. It was a really illuminating experience for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t really know what doing research with primary documents entails. For a library school student at a college that boasts a huge archives program, I’ve never really been in an archives, so stepping into Schomburg was new for me. And then I’ve also never done research to write a novel before, not having finished a long narrative work since the novel I wrote when I was 12 (I think it was 54 pages, single spaced, which is actually not all that bad). But I’m in the school of fake it til you make it, so I was all prepared to fake it.
Fake it I did. But I felt rather awkward. The biggest two things I’ve learned in library school thus far are that everyone is excited that you’re in it until you ask working librarians for help/interviews/jobs, and then they stop being interested in you, and also that you can’t work in a library unless you’ve already worked in a library/you can’t know how to use an archives unless you already know how to use it. And that’s exactly what happened at Schomburg–I’m sure it’s not on purpose, but archivists tend to kind of look at you like you’re a jackass for not knowing how to behave in an archives, but really that’s absurd, because it’s not even a library, so it’s not exactly like you learned the proper usage of one back in elementary school. Anyway, I figured it out, got my temporary NYPL card (!), and found out that the sound archives I requested weren’t there yet, but that I could go upstairs and look at the rest of the stuff I wanted.
I got to look at three of the 25 or so boxes they have on the person I am researching. I have obviously been fascinated by her since I was 7; otherwise she wouldn’t be a character in the book I’m writing. But I didn’t think I was so obsessed or invested in her until I started touching things that she had owned, like her passport and concert programs and letters. I was so happy just to be peeking into her life that I was scarcely taking notes at all, except when I actively reminded myself that people were watching and it would probably look weird if I didn’t. Because, remember, I don’t know how to do research, so I didn’t know what I was doing. But what I was really there for was insight into her character and personality, so really sinking in was what I needed, and I did take notes on her tone, her style, her attitudes, and all that. I realized that I was writing her as snarky and that seems to be actually how she was. I realized our fathers are very similar. I realized I miss studying piano. I realized I miss traveling. I realized that I am totally obsessed with this girl, and this one novel might not even be enough to get her out of my head.
I’m now home in Tucson and have been too busy to write, but I’m planning on it. (I know I always say that, but I’ve been pretty decent at it lately, so.) But I now feel like I have the tools I need to finish the novel. And what’s more, I really, really love doing research! It makes me feel a little selfish that the best thing I’ve gotten out of library school so far is the desire to use my skills to further my own projects and interests, but I’ve learned so much about expert searching in databases and search engines, and now I know how to use an archive, so I just have piles of ideas for novels and screenplays that I’d like to do research for. I just want to be creative and studious! All the time. Forever. There’s so freaking much to learn about and absorb, why would I ever want to do things like teach people or help better society? Pssh.