2015 Lamar York Prize Winner Amy D. Clark on research and the writing process.
I am eternally nostalgic about my childhood. I grew up among storytellers; I knew my great-great grandfather and sat at the knees of my great-grandparents until I was in my thirties. The well of family history that inspires my nonfiction will never run dry. But it’s far too easy to wax romantic about what we love as writers. Good editors have challenged me over the years to find the story behind the story, which is what I wanted to do with my essay. It took patience. I could have gone the rest of my life with just the anecdotes I heard during front porch conversation, which are interesting enough. But the rocks I wrote about symbolized people. It seemed to me they deserved more than just my memories.
Research keeps a writer honest, not just about the facts, but about moving beyond the shallow water to find out what’s lurking in the cool, dark depths.
“The Rocks” took two years to research and write, but it simmered in the back of my mind for most of my life. Once I decided to explore the stories about those Civil War-era graves on my grandmother’s property, the research led me down some dead ends that frustrated me to the point of almost giving up, as I explain in the essay. I had been naïve in thinking it would be easy. It was going to take a lot of time if I did it right.
I drew upon every resource I could find. I was fortunate to have colleagues who are experts in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras in central Appalachia. I read scholarly books. I read letters written in the late 1800’s. I emailed cousins in other states who had grown elaborate trees on Ancestry.com. I consulted with forensic archaeologists. I interviewed my grandmother and great uncle, revisiting the stories with a researcher’s questions. I examined spidery handwriting on the backs of family photos that had hung on walls my entire life. I sent off my saliva for a DNA profile, which led me to the conclusion of the piece . . . and even more questions that will lead to more writing.
I kept a daily journal of my research and writing process, and much of the essay came from those entries. The piece was always about the people the rocks symbolized, but as I read back through the journal, I realized it was more about the process of discovery, and summoning the courage to write some less-than-romantic lines about my region and race, about family and folklore. And where I could, I let people speak for themselves.
Nonfiction can take many forms, but my advice is to let memory shape the first draft. From there, let research be your guide and your truthsayer. In my case, it led to much more than I expected, and inspired ideas that will go into a book-length work.
Amy Clark was the 2015 Lamar York Prize Winner for Nonfiction. She is author of two books of nonfiction, most recently Talking Appalachian (University Press of Kentucky, 2013). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Harvard University Press blog, Appalachian Heritage, Blue Ridge Country, and NPR, among others, and she was a script consultant for the recently released film Big Stone Gap. She is co-founder of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Director of the Appalachian Writing Project at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise where she is a Professor of Writing and Rhetoric. More of her work may be found at amydclark.com.
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