Memory & Adventure 4: Dedicated and Discovery Research

Image courtesy of Claire Thompson

The following exercise comes to us thanks to the amazing Melanie Rae Thon, who has generously provided me with an expansive set of exercises that will be published here over the coming weeks. This particular exercise is the second part of a mini-collection, and the first part can be found here. They are meant to be completed in order, so go back and finish the first three if you haven’t already. Enjoy!

Necessary (Dedicated) Research

By now it should be obvious you will need to do an enormous amount of research in order to evoke the whole environment and your particular experience(s) within that environment as vividly and precisely as you wish! And you will have to make choices about what is important and what is extraneous.

Exercise Four is another extensive list of all the research you need/want/hope to pursue, and the kinds of sources you might consult.

Every project requires research of some kind. Sometimes we need to do “traditional” research, go to the library or cruise the web looking for information. Even writers like Nancy Venable Raine, Mary Oliver, Norman Maclean, John Wideman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Tim O’Brien, and Terry Tempest Williams who work with autobiographical material must do a great deal of research (exploring various texts, interviewing family members, learning the history of their communities, talking to other victims of trauma or illness, reading their own journals, looking at photographs, watching birds, exploring the environment, etcetera) in order to make their stories and poems vivid and accurate.

Research may involve reading medical, psychological, philosophical, environmental, or historical texts—seeing films, interviewing your mother or a stranger, taking a journey to a sacred or defiled place, talking with a priest, going for a surprising walk in an unfamiliar city or wilderness, revisiting a place you know well, witnessing a birth or an autopsy—visiting an art or natural history museum, smelling cedar, listening to a hawk, gathering mushrooms, meeting a
bear, eating a nasturtium.

Where is the wonder in your project? How can research, observation, and investigation add to your sense of awe? Do you need to learn more about Sitka spruce, wolf-eels, poppies, clouds? Do you need to visit Montana, Moab, Greenland, the little creek behind your house? Do you have time to open the window and talk to the birds? Do you have the opportunity to observe ants or meteors? What do you love? With what beings or in what place do you wish to immerse yourself (literally and imaginatively)? Will photographs, films, and/or recordings help? (You can look at/listen to ones by others, or start making your own! A friend of mine who is a musician made recordings the length of the Danube, under and above water, including the sounds of the water itself, as well as all the creatures (even a few human creatures) she discovered.)

Make a list of all the details you would like to understand more fully. Be as specific as possible! But yes, oh yes, start working through your list, gathering the information and experience you need. I strongly recommend using image notebooks to write short meditations on each piece of information you discover. This is one way to begin “taking possession” of knowledge, to translate what you learn into your own voice, to see and begin to understand underlying connections.

Go out in the wild world! Be an explorer! The Sufis say there are three ways to learn about fire: you can hear of fire; you can see fire; or you can be burned by fire. Let yourselves be burned! Enjoy yourselves! Have an adventure. Try something you’ve never done. Learn something in the field! Even if it doesn’t “fit” into your project (which is often the case), trust the fact that you’ll be able to use it somewhere else, some time in the near or distant
future. Understanding is never wasted.

Discovery Research

You should also try “discovery” research, investigation you pursue out of pure interest—without any goal or particular story or project in mind. This is how Leroy Hood was working when he began mapping the Human Genome! Sometimes we believe we know what we need to investigate (and what information we hope to find), but sometimes we begin a quest with no goals and no hypotheses (and open ourselves to the most astonishing

Be open to the unexpected! Discovery Research may contribute to your project in surprising ways, or may lead you to another project entirely (now or in the future). Discovery Research may add to your delight and wonder, your understanding and gratitude and compassion. Nothing is extraneous! Everything we learn, every being we encounter has the potential to transform us in profound or subtle ways.

Compose a one-page “Talking Point” on the material you find most intriguing, mysterious, revelatory, and/or disturbing. This section need not be related to Exercises 1 – 4, but as you write you may begin to perceive secret connections.

Writing is too difficult, demanding, rewarding, and holy to do casually. If you choose to tell your most important stories and/or the most compelling stories in the lives of fictional beings, if you re-enter and re-invent them with passion and curiosity, if you are attentive to language moment by moment, detail by detail, you will write something that surprises and delights you. Use all your senses, all your love, all your intelligence and imagination!

And again, when you are ready to compose,imagine and invent ways of describing the underlying patterns in your own explorations.

* Note *
Consider the fascinating essay on memory in The Best Science and Nature Writing 2010 (“Out of the Past” by Kathleen McGowan)!

Unlike the old idea that memories are “wired” in the brain, synapses seared for (almost) all time, current research indicates that “reactivating a memory destabilizes it, putting it back into a flexible, vulnerable state.”

In other words, every time you remember an event, you are reinventing it: embellishing, deleting, altering it through fusion and imagination. In this way, memory and imagination are inextricably linked!

Oh, consider the potential plasticity of the brain, the endless, glorious potential of storytelling, of adding others’ tales to our own and freeing ourselves from what we may have believed was the “true narrative” of our experience!

There is no such thing as “I.”

May we be transformed by un-knowing, re-membering, re-searching, re-imagining, reexperiencing,
re-inventing through our writing!

Exploring your “Adventures in the Wilderness” will (I hope) help you see the astonishing complexity of your own life, the malleability of memory, and the potency of immediate sensation to change the way you experience the past. We are reinvented every moment! If this is true for “you,” it is also true for every living being you encounter, in stories you write, in texts you read and view!

Every life, every being is an infinite mystery! Be amazed. Be curious.


Rejoice in the rapture of exploration.

If you wish to continue . . .

Return to page one (again & again)!

Do the entire sequence for Someone you Love (dearly) and have known most (or all of your life).

Do the entire sequence for a stranger, someone you have seen or heard about, “a person of interest” for one reason or another.

Do the entire sequence for someone you don’t love at all, someone who has harmed or offended you, someone you fear.

Do the entire sequence for someone you invent.

This is, of course, a kind of Buddhist practice! These kinds of meditations can lead us into deep and surprising awareness, curiosity and compassion—and even (if we are blessed) into love! I write to understand. For me, there is no greater purpose.

May you be happy, peaceful, and light in body and in spirit!
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Teachings on Love

Melanie Rae Thon Author PhotoMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song (September 2015) and The 7th Man (November 2015). She is also the author of the novels The Voice of the River, Sweet Hearts, Meteors in August, and Iona Moon, and the story collections In This Light, First, Body, and Girls in the Grass. Thon’s work has been included in Best American Short Stories (1995, 1996), three Pushcart Prize Anthologies (2003, 2006, 2008), and O. Henry Prize Stories (2006). She is a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Reading the West Book Award, the Gina Berriault Award, the Utah Book Award, and a Writer’s Residency from the Lannan Foundation. In 2009, she was Virgil C. Aldrich Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. She is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction.