Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Life in a nutshell

If you follow my blog then you know I've recently been working on some study-guide essays. As part of the deal with the company I write for, I was also asked to write short biographies of two authors. Yesterday I finished the first of these, a biography of Daniel Handler, aka. Lemony Snicket.

The format of the biographies asks me to write a potted history of the author's life and short sections on each of their main works. Now, I have to admit that until I accepted the assignment I had never heard of Daniel Handler and had only a vague, 'oh yes, I've heard the name', acquaintance with Lemony Snicket. So, this was a ground-up research job.

Most research I do these days - whether for a story or a conference paper, or even for teaching materials - is a case of finding the information or the suitable quotation to back up what I already want to say. Even when writing a study guide, my first source is the text in question, and my analysis is usually based on my own reading with research backing it up. But when putting together the life of a writer, there is no primary source. There is no single place to go to for the information you want. So, it's one of those cases where everything comes from research.

As a result I have spent the last few days involved in the kind of research which I haven't really undertaken since I finished my PhD back in 2005. I have been reading, absorbing, sorting, sifting, condensing and writing. At times it has left my head spinning, but was also, in a strange way, quite fun. Assimilating all that knowledge at speed and then spitting it out again in condensed form (such as reducing all 13 Lemony Snicket books down to fewer than 500 words!) leaves you feeling gorged on information. Exhilarating, in it's way.

And the result? Well, I wrote something for which I will be paid, which is always nice. But I also found that, in conversation with my girlfriend about what I was working on, I was able to talk knowledgeably about Handler and about all his books, where just days before I barely knew who he was. After the event it feels a little like being Neo in The Matrix; as though I have downloaded a 'Daniel Handler module' into my head. And this, I guess, gets to the root of why I do what I do: all this writing, researching and teaching. I do it because after a BA, an MA and a PhD, I have learned is that there is still so much more to learn, and I want to know it all.

Now, the keen eyed amongst you will note that I have two biographies to write. With one down, who is the other one? Well, it's a man called William Woodruff. At this point I know that he was a historian who wrote two books with the place-name Nab's End in the titles. Ask me again after I've downloaded the module, and I'll tell you the rest.

PS. Thanks to Barenaked Ladies for today's blog title. No research required.

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