The Spirit World

I’ve been thinking (and teaching and writing) lately about how awesome research is.

Seriously, how awesome is research?


I. LOVE. research. It’s by far my favorite part of the writing process, the time when I just get to look and learn and soak up and scribble and wonder and wander around and around and around… And it doesn’t matter if it feels like it’s getting anywhere.

Drafting a piece is work. Bringing something to life out of all that nebulous material is hands-on, nitty-gritty construction work. It’s building. It’s incredibly rewarding in its own right, to see a piece come together.

But research is just fun. It’s for sure the reason I’m so singularly devoted to creative nonfiction. I get to learn about anything I want. I get to say “hey, I’m curious about Norse mythology,” and then I get to spend weeks, months usually, learning about Norse mythology. There are no limitations on what counts: I can get twenty books on interlibrary loan, or I can watch Thor, and I can say it’s because I’m working on a piece. It’s all thrilling, open-ended, curious, exploratory, potential. Research is all possibility.

At any rate, I’ve been trying to show my students how much fun this can be, which is a tough thing to do in the classroom (field trips to come!) but I’ve been talking about the whirl of reflection,  and hoping to ignite their minds with the fires of their own curiosity.


In the hopes of making this process seem even more cool, here is a short list of some of the questions I’ve asked or research I’ve conducted in the service of a piece I’m “working” on:


  • Googled lists of supposedly haunted places in western Pennsylvania, and read lots of ghost-hunting message boards
  • Read articles and blog posts about a few specific sites in the area
  • Read the Wikipedia entry about the etymology of the word spirits
  • Googled and read various answers to questions about origins of the term “happy hour.”
  • Downloaded a free e-book (thank you library) called The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet
  • Visited two cemeteries at the beginning of a snowstorm and took pictures
  • Looked at trail maps for the sites of ghost towns
  • Read chapters on nightmares and the haunted mind from Oliver Sacks’ book Hallucinations*
  • Listened to the following podcasts:
    • Here Be Monsters, “Spirits of the Past”
    • Love + Radio, “Ghost Stories”
    • Radiolab, “Haunted”
    • 99% Invisible, “O-U-I-J-A”
  • Learned about various experiments conducted by the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, which is a real thing
  • Photoshopped together Creative Commons licensed photos of whiskey and Ouija boards, as seen in this post

*Actually, I’m just reading this book for fun, but these chapters ended up linking up. A funny thing about researching a topic: you start to see it everywhere.

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