Are you researching, or just procrastinating?

As part of the launch of our new membership scheme, we’re celebrating writers that LPW has worked with in the course of the past year.

In the last post from our talented gaggle of Dark Horse Festival writers, Sophia Chapadjiev takes a long hard look at herself in the mirror and asks: is all that time spent reading encyclopaedias really helping her research? Or is it just another way of putting off writing?

I once wrote a musical in which a man needed a root canal. I was so proud of my detailed knowledge of vascular tissue and pulpotomy that I sent it to the dentist I had when I was growing up. Unsurprisingly, he never wrote me back. And just as unsurprisingly, my chances of getting this or any piece produced are diminished when I choose to submit things to dentists before doing so to theater companies.

Advice: Submit plays to theater companies not dental practices.

I have always loved research. I can get so caught up in investigating a time period or topic that nothing else seems to matter. And it’s not enough for me to read about things online or even take a cursory trip to the library: I want to so immerse myself into a world – of which I don’t belong and never will – to make those who live in that world feel I am one of them. Ah, pride, why carest thou for the opinions of those whose circles you don’t even travel in?

I just want to get it right.

So, when I was writing a piece about an airline mishap, and I discovered that years after the plane went down a new theory had emerged about why it crashed, I suddenly needed to learn all I could on said theory. Now, I could have written the piece without this information. It wasn’t pertinent to the character study; I was writing an operatic fantasy of what went through the flight attendant’s mind in the last moments of life as she fell from the sky. Did I really need to be googling “how are fuselages like boilers”? Or seeking out interviews with conspiracy theory boiler specialists?

Yes, yes, useful info in theory. But really, what am I doing? Procrastinating. Like a Pro.

Crastinator.

Oh, to have the discipline of those great wordsmiths I admire. To wake at 5, write till 9, break the fast, go for a walk, take the world in while making observational notes for future projects, eat lunch precisely from 1 to 2, review what I’d started in the morning, maybe a nap, le five o’clock, start another project, and, as it says on my shampoo bottle, rinse and repeat, and start all over again.

But no. Instead I am googling things that have nothing to do with what my piece appears to be about.

Advice: Research boiler specialist conspiracy theories only when you are writing a piece about boiler specialist conspiracy theories.

More recently, I was asked to submit a proposal for an opera with a specific location as a prompt and a limit of four characters.

Free of the constraints of research, I was able to dream big. And so I ambitiously indulged in flights of fancy to the land of What Ifs. And next thing I knew I had woven a tale involving:

  • The erecting of the George Washington Bridge
  • The creation of a present day philanthropic project in actual existence
  • The proper use of microwaves
  • A secondary character from “one of the world’s conflict zones”

My proposal has since been greenlit. And I am petrified. There’s a lot I suddenly need to learn about before I even put pen to paper. Thankfully, I am at least relatively proficient at using a microwave.

Advice: Learn your stuff. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: It’s okay to be ignorant about one thing, but three is just careless. Or maybe he said something like this about something else altogether. [Note to self: research and edit later.]

First stop: the library. Books on waterways, the history of bridges, the Great Depression as an appetizer. My protagonist, loosely based on a real person, comes from a wealthy family and so I ask the librarian, “How do I find a book about how people made their money along the New England waterways before, say, roads or railways came about, and is there also, by chance, a chapter on how female daughters of affluent families felt about the inequality of wealth distribution”?

The librarian looks at me blankly.

Of course that’s not true. Librarians are wonderful and will always try to understand and aid me, even when Siri will not.

Advice: When in doubt, search out a librarian. This works for questions of fact and also for questions of opinion (ex: Do you think this book goes with this hat?).

I relish the research phase. But I know it can also be a method of avoidance. As each day closes, I am one day nearer to when my first draft is due on the above project and nary a word has yet been writ. And I’ve only just now finished letters “D” through “F” in the Encyclopaedia of Bridges and Tunnels. Who knows what wisdom “G”, “H” or even “I” hold.

I believe the more I learn about something that I did not know about, the readier I am to proceed to the next step. And so, once I am brimful with newly acquired knowledge and can spout both useful and useless facts, I have to throw it all out the window and finally start the writing.

But before the writing, yet after the research (though sometimes one can bleed into the other) there is a gorgeous sweet spot – often while I am deep in REM sleep – when the synapses of my subconscious are making connections with the speed and alacrity of Muhammad Ali.

And so while research can be a form of procrastination and often times, to those around me, it looks as if I am doing no practical work whatsoever, research is essential to prime my process.

But what is scary… is the trusting. Trusting and believing that I can and will make things work. And so far, this method has not let me down.

Advice: If something has worked for you, trust the process will work again.

I would love to not feel like I have to do so much research. And I would love to not procrastinate but that just isn’t my process. Sometimes, a girl’s just gotta lean in.

Sophia Chapadjiev’s one-act opera, A Bridge Between, debuted at the International House in New York City in May.  The George Washington Bridge in New York; the citizens of Mostar and the famed Mostar Bridge in Bosnia & Herzegovina; and the germination of a philanthropic project all made an appearance.  Sadly, “the proper use of microwaves” was cut from an early draft.  This after Sophia had practically become a microwavologist.  She is now excitedly on the brink of embarking on a stone-carving course.  Following that, her opera, The Bone Keepers – described as “a kind of creep show meets Laverne and Shirley” by Broadway World – will be performed again in New York in conjunction with American Opera Projects.

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