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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

The Role of Research in Personal Narratives

Blog Entry No. 6

Research is essential, whether telling a coming-of-age story, investigating a family secret, or recreating the legacy of several generations. Whether we write about a world we know intimately or are just discovering, research leads to more layered and authentic narratives.
--Mimi Schwartz

The notion that memoirists rely exclusively on memory and imagination to shape their narratives is a persistent misconception. Let’s agree on this much. Memoirs are set in real time and in real places; and they include real people and real events. None of us would be inclined to trust a writer who fabricated those facts. And so, the memoirist, and for that matter, the journalist’s credibility rests on those things that can be verified—even fact checked.

But, what about the memoir’s personal story?

At a recent writer’s conference, I gave a craft talk on the role of research in writing personal narratives. In the Q and A, someone asked, “does the research serve the personal story; or is it the other way round?” My answer was that, in my memoir Still Pitching, I’d originally set out to write the personal story first. Then, when I had a working draft, I’d insert the research wherever I thought it would fit the narrative. Of course, things didn’t go according to plan.

Once I got through the early childhood segments--largely about family, schooling, and an early love of books and writing--the young narrator’s infatuation with baseball began to take over the narrative. His initial curiosity evolved into a preoccupation and finally a full-blown obsession. By his last year in high school, baseball, in all its incarnations, had eclipsed his childhood love of books and his writing dreams. And just as his fierce attachment to baseball reshaped the course of his adolescence, so did my own realization of baseball’s central role in this narrative alter the way I shaped the memoir.

It quickly became evident that the narrator’s personal (coming-of-age) story couldn’t stand alone without the book degenerating into a self-centered, here’s-what-happened narrative. The memoir, I realized, needed a larger context. It was necessary then, to weave the personal story and the research together so that, just as it is in real life, the one is inextricably linked with the other. As it turns out, the research not only was necessary, but it also opened up previously unplanned opportunities for deepening and extending the narrative.

If you grew up as I did in New York City from the late 1940’s throughout the ‘50’s, you couldn’t ignore the influence, the hold, that baseball had over most New Yorkers. The late 1940’s thru the late 1950’s, was a period when all three New York professional teams--the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants--won the World Series ten times in eleven seasons. Even today, sports historians still refer to that time as “the golden age of New York baseball.”

And so, I set the body of the memoir between two major cultural-historical events; 1947—when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to break the major league color barrier—and 1957, when the Dodgers and Giants left New York for California. Their departure marked the end of my adolescence. But it was also the beginning of my realization that this game we grew up idealizing was also, in fact, a business. Today, this still serves as a marker for numerous, similar changes in the larger culture.

Three interrelated personal narratives run throughout the memoir: the narrator’s confusions about family, school, friendships, cliques, and the mystery of girls and sex; his obsession with baseball; and his intense identification with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The young boy chose the Dodgers because, like him, they were always the underdog, the team that continually disappointed their fans. Think: Chicago Cubs.

As a result, both the personal story and the research demanded a good deal of primary and secondary investigation. I spent dozens of hours in library stacks digging out baseball histories and period histories about New York, scrutinizing a host of microfiche, videos, and newspaper and magazine clips--about New York City in the 50’s and baseball in New York during that era. And at the same time, I was conducting selective interviews with acquaintances, family members, and baseball and cultural historians who’d witnessed and/or had grown up during that period.

In addition, there were significant cultural and historical events, and other people—entertainers, politicians, writers, and so on to consider. So, in order for me to accurately render that milieu, I had to get the names, places, dates, and historical events right.

While I can’t claim that Still Pitching was written as cultural criticism, still, having to weave the research with the personal narrative allowed me to resolve the question of whether the personal story served the research, or the other way around. It seems to me now that the research grew out a genuine need to not only set a context for the narrator’s experience, but to also to help me render and evoke the inner and outer landscape of the narrator’s adolescence.

Which means that the personal story, largely taken from memory and imagination, together with the research and reportage, became the raw materials that, I, the author, still had to organize and shape into a coherent narrative. And that is, as Annie Dillard suggests, how one learns to “fashion a text”—which, in the end, is what all literary writers—memoirists, poets, and fiction writers alike-- must do.

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