Research and Improvisation – Amy Head

 

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For the first time in a while, recently, while I was packing up to move, I put my hands on the folders and clear files relating to each of the stories in Tough (a collection set in the past and present on the West Coast). I’m far less likely to happen on digital files in the same way, and it was the first time I’d looked at this material together as one record. Each story had its own spiral-bound notepad. There were photocopies from library visits and pamphlets from tiny museums in the middle of nowhere (more like sheds, some of them, supervised by no-one). I found an exhibition catalogue and a promo DVD from Solid Energy.

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The folders were filled out with print-outs of past drafts – three or four per story. Flicking through the old versions reminded me of entire sections of stories that had been scrapped, like the deleted scenes in DVD extras. It reminded me how unexpectedly modular the stories had been, allowing me to shift paragraphs around when I’d finished the first draft and could see more clearly what the story was about. It was all there: characters whose names had changed, the story I had to rewrite after being burgled.

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I especially enjoy the research and discovery phase of developing an idea for a story. At its most ‘method’, this has meant persuading a friend of a friend, a textile historian, to let me try on her collection of hoop skirts. At its most leisurely it meant tracking down and watching old goldrush movies.

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Sometimes these diversions were justified. After all, I have to inject the language with my own energy and commitment. I have to make the first draft sparkle enough to keep me interested in all the subsequent drafts, when I’ve switched the paragraph order and changed my mind about tense and point of view, and it’s all an unpacked mess that has to be put back together somehow.

But often, when I’ve forced myself to stay at my desk and write past the point at which the day’s writing began to feel stale, I’ve eventually arrived at an idea or image I’ve liked. I’m not sure that all of the preamble, my holistic approach, which I hoped was building up a unique world, attitude and tone for each story, was actually necessary. Although it may have given the stories the occasional sentence or image, the language and style is far more likely to have been enriched by what I was reading. On my MA year in particular, I was reading more, and more widely, than usual, and being encouraged to try new things.

During an interview for ‘In the Actor’s Studio’, Robert de Niro said he often found he got to the same place in his characterisations by skipping most of the fastidious preparation, instead starting to improvise and rehearse as soon as possible. I wonder if, when I start out in my next project, I’ll find a better balance between preparing and doing from the outset. If I start writing earlier, my subconscious can continue the work while I’m skiving off watching YouTube footage of the world’s highest waterfall, a demonstration of how to put my hair in victory rolls, or Roberto Begnini performing his one-man show about Dante, in Italian, in front of the Duomo.

Amy Head’s first book of stories Tough is published by Victoria University Press. She appears in the Writers on Mondays lunchtime series at Te Papa on 29 July.

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