Sunday, January 11, 2009

Soliciting stories door to door

I was reading in the newspaper this morning about a new book on the rich and how they got that way. I wasn’t interested in what the author had to say about that. His book interested me for another reason: his process. He trekked across the country, literally knocking on doors in the 20 most wealthy zip codes to ask people to tell their stories. As the reviewer noted, the author had reasoned that those people who would talk to him would likely be worthy of reading about, “[b]ecause close-minded, unadventurous, uninteresting people wouldn’t invite a stranger into their homes and share their life stories with him.” Maybe. But the reviewer says the stories were boring and trite. Still, the author got published...

Process interests me more than results. I attended a fellow PhD student’s dissertation proposal defense Friday and I found that all the questions that popped into my head were about process. He must be interested in what will come of his analysis (he's been working on it for quite awhile now), but I was more curious about the mechanics of everything he had done. At one point he told a little story about how he ended up buying an island in Second Life, how it was not at all what he intended to do initially. So he’s going to study the development of a learning community in a virtual world. Ok. How he came to that, now that was interesting. I love how the totally unexpected can emerge at your feet where you've just buried your latest dream.

One of the first articles I read after beginning doctoral study explained how little of the experience of being a graduate student ever makes it into a paper. Papers report results. In fact, their authors intentionally strip out all the process because that’s where all the failure, frustration and disappointment are (and maybe doubt and depression and self-recrimination). Students don’t talk about how they screwed up 50 times before they finally got the experiment to work. For whatever reason, that process interests me a lot more than the results of the experiment. I think it always has. I need to keep this in mind as I think about what to write about.

And on writing -- I'm on my third book about writing since realizing just before Christmas that I am a writer who needs to improve her writing. Deciding what to write about isn't nearly so hard as it seemed when I defined the result as a dissertation. When you focus on process, the difficulty just evaporates like rain that never hits the ground.

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