Wednesday, September 7, 2016

49 Writers: Guest Blogger Mary Catharine Martin | On Research, Berries, and Living a Writerly Life

Mary Catharine Martin cooks dinner along the Nisutlin River
in the Yukon in September 2014. (Photo: Bjorn Dihle)
Six years ago this summer, I hiked up Juneau’s Granite Creek Basin with my partner Bjorn, looking for berries. It was my first season of gathering in Alaska, and everything about it was thrilling. Red, yellow, and melon-colored berries named for a fish. Lush, red, velvety berries named for the way they fit on your finger like a thimble. I hadn’t liked blueberries very much growing up in Virginia — they emerged from plastic boxes mushy and tasteless — but blueberries in Alaska were an entirely different thing, a hundred times version of what I knew.

The rain was blowing sideways and I was losing feeling in my fingers, but I barely noticed. Bjorn and I had just met, and I was making big, sweeping statements, trying to impress him.

“I’d rather have an interesting life than a happy one,” I told him.

He stopped picking and looked at me skeptically. “Really?”

A few years later, I see problems with that statement — not least of which are that it contradicts itself. (I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t living a life I found interesting; I tend to think most things considered deeply are interesting; interesting things make me happy).

What I meant, though, is that I always want to be fascinated by the world and its possibilities. It’s an idea inextricably tied to writing. (The Oatmeal has a great comic about happiness and art here.) We’re lucky, us writers. Most things become interesting when we are challenged to convey them well. And Alaska, though it does contain its share of dish-washing and computer-staring, can also be a place that shakes you out of yourself and what you know — whether you’re living your own life or researching the life of someone you’ve imagined.

Unless your fiction is fictionalized memoir, you generally haven’t lived everything you write about. I’ve never committed a criminal act out of desperation, or been a fugitive on a fishing boat, or an orphan in a Louisiana swamp. The protagonists in The One that Ran Away, the novel I’ve been working on for the last six years, have. I’ve never been a woman searching for her sister during the Klondike Gold Rush either, but I’ve been planning a protagonist like that in my next book just the same. I’m excited about the research I’ll do: I’ve begun stockpiling historical accounts, memoirs from stampeders.

Ultimately, I’m sure I will also make a few journeys — re-hiking the Chilkoot Trail, floating parts of the Yukon — because while it is far from the only way to research, nothing informs fiction like experience.

Floating along the Stikine River in 2015.
(Photo: 
Bjorn Dihle )
At the end of my most recent draft of The One that Ran Away, a chapter in which a 13-year-old girl is lost and alone in the Tongass didn’t feel right. I spent hours staring at my computer, writing a paragraph, deleting it. Finally, I decided to walk alone around Douglas Island, where I live. I sidestepped sea anemones at low tide. I avoided two young black bears by wading hip-deep in the ocean. I scrambled around cliffs. I got crushed mussels in my shoes and soaked my socks with blood. I set up camp on the beach, got creeped out, shoved everything back in my pack and walked another hour as the sun was setting. By the end of the second day I’d stopped avoiding devil’s club and begun scrambling up steep hillsides by digging my bare fingers into the dirt — and this was just a two-day trip.

This isn’t to say you have to live everything in order to write it; I don’t think that at all. I believe, strongly, in unfettered imagination. Heck, Laura Hillenbrand’s chronic fatigue syndrome means she does most of her research from her house, and it clearly works for her nonfiction. (There’s a great article about that here). My imagination just feels most unfettered when I’ve been immersed in the best research I can do. Experience undertaken for research also challenges you, which has the added benefit of making life more interesting.

A month after I finished my walk around Douglas, my feet are still a pedicurist’s nightmare. That hike, though, was the highlight of my summer, and the chapter that came from it was a joy to write.

More than “write what you know,” I believe writers should write what interests them. I also think, however, that if you are writing what interests you, it should become something you know. For me, much of this preference comes down to confidence. Whether I’m teaching or writing, I always want to know more than I can possibly convey — it makes what one does convey that much richer.

After all, if you grew up eating mushy things from plastic boxes, the best way to know the wonder of an Alaskan blueberry is to taste it.

Mary Catharine Martin is a Juneau writer currently sending out her book, The One that Ran Away. It interweaves the stories of three generations of runaways and spans rural Louisiana in the 1930s to modern-day Las Vegas and Southeast Alaska. 

5 comments:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, Mary Catharine. I love doing research for my historical novels--have been to lots of cool places because of it.

Mary Catharine Martin said...

Thanks, Lynn!

Jeff Zeringue said...

Wonderful! Enjoyed envisioning the trip.

Danny said...

Loved this so much. It's great to get a perspective that makes me appreciate where I live, it's so easy to take for granted

Mary Catharine Martin said...

Thanks, Jeff and Danny. :) Next week: giant evil talking cockroaches. At least that's what I'm working on now...