Jaime Green on Writing with Research
“Before we can engage, we have to listen, catch up, and learn the lay of the land.”
The following first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
I realized early on that what I loved about writing nonfiction was the finding. Digging some marvel out of a dusty corner and giving it a good wipe-down, holding it up so the reader can see how it catches the light. Look at that!
The item is always in the light, not me. The thrill of the jackpot in research entranced me, as did the satisfaction of setting the artifact in the perfect frame of an essay. Instead of puzzle pieces with only one solution, the research was mosaic tiles, making a different picture if you placed them this way or that. I thought, for a while, that was my art.
But it’s a choice, of course, how visible a writer makes their research. Not the information found, but the act of finding. And not the credit and citation—that’s not a flexible requirement—but whether the sourcing lives in your prose instead of just the back of the book. You do get to decide.
In his marvel of research and synthesis, The Method: How America Learned to Act, Isaac Butler makes it feel like he never names a source as he’s writing. You know who said what and when, but not what archive or interview Butler draws from. Everything is offered to the reader through an omniscient, though hardly impersonal, voice. In Leslie Jamison’s essays, sources seem to spring from the writer’s mind, a deep well of quotations and recollections—Madame Bovary and James Agee easily at her fingertips.
Maggie Nelson goes structural with citation in The Argonauts, often declining to name a source in her prose or even set apart their words with quotation marks, but rather interpolating their language into her own, indicated with italics and the source listed in the wide margin.It’s a choice, of course, how visible a writer makes their research.
When I started writing a book, I never made a conscious choice about how I’d bring in my research, I’ll admit. I knew there would be a lot of it: It would be a book about science, spanning across disciplines like physics, astronomy, biology, and geology, plus linguistics, anthropology, and more. But I didn’t think it would read like science journalism. I’m an essayist, not a journalist, by training and inclination, more interested in asking questions than reporting on facts. When the pandemic hit a few months into my research, that settled it.
My book could never follow the pop-science structure of open a chapter with a grabby anecdote, we’re in a lab with a scientist, a colorful character maybe in a Hawaiian shirt, handing me one of the strange bugs that she studies; I handle the bug, look deep into its faceted eyes, and transition into describing the bug research. I wouldn’t have any of these lab visits. It would be me and zoom, scientists an hour at a time. And a lot—a lot—of books.
I found myself defaulting to the approach I’d learned when I taught first-year composition. It wasn’t just the mechanics I’d internalized, the In her book, X, whatever-ist so-and-so argues, or following meaty quotations with my own paraphrase and interpretation, though there is plenty of that; but an entire sense of what research does in a piece of writing, and what a writer is doing when she writes with it.
Many of my comp lesson plans were inherited. With one of them came this passage, from Kenneth Burke’s 1941 rhetoric classic, The Philosophy of Literary Form:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
It’s a metaphor for academia or, more expansively, for the creation of knowledge. None of us is the first in our discipline; others have always come before, establishing and enriching the field. Before we can engage, we have to listen, catch up, and learn the lay of the land. But perhaps before we feel ready, we put in that oar. I get that sense of plunging in from Burke’s “you decide you have caught the tenor of the argument”—you don’t understand it all, just the tenor, just the tone. But you take the plunge, entering the current of a brisk river. Burke says “oar” but I think at best you have an inner tube. But you stay afloat, you find your way.
My sources, then, were the assembly of a conversation. Welcome to the parlor, Johannes Kepler. Hey Ted Chiang, come over here, I want you to talk to Elon Musk for a second (I’m sorry). Sue Burke, have you met China Mieville? I think you two would have a lot to say.
At first it may have felt like a safety net to make the research so visible. Don’t take my word for it, these ideas come straight from the mouths of experts, from stacks of scholarly works! I wasn’t pretending to be an authority myself, not me, just arraying these sources in a pretty shape. But I’ve realized I’m more than a curator. I’m an interlocutor, an interpreter, and a source myself as well. Because being in the parlor isn’t just hosting and eavesdropping. You dip in your oar.
It comes down to being an essayist. Neither a reporter nor a historian, an essayist asks questions and thinks through them on the page. Because that’s where the parlor really is, in the pages of books and treatises, articles and essays. It’s almost epistolary. And in the end it was a bolder claim for me to make than writing from an omniscient authorial voice. I’m not just citing these sources but writing back to them, to Kepler and Carl Sagan and Mary Doria Russell. Telling them I’m here in the room, in the parlor with them, too.
Jaime Green’s The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos is available now from Hanover Square Press.