Google Isn’t Deep Enough

Colum McCann > Letters to Young Writers > Google Isn’t Deep Enough

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own world. We have to be able to make a shotgun leap into a life, or a time, or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This is closely linked with research. You have to ask yourself the question: Is it an act of cultural arrogance to write out of voice? (Wouldn’t the world be awful if we only had one voice?) How about economic arrogance? How dare we think we can become the storytelling conscience of other people? Is it arrogant to assume that we write to better the world? How do we write about lives that are, at least on the surface, very different from our own? How can we create experiences that are imagined but true? Where is the place of empathy in the life of the writer? How do we get outside of ourselves? The answer always lies in proper, deep, moral research. We must stretch towards the supposedly unknown. Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe and argue with one another, even in the dusty basement. So go down to the library. Go out in the streets. Watch movies. Go to photographs. Ask the experts. Find the divine detail. Caress it. The more specific the moment the better. Art is a way of coping with the world by bringing it under the microscope of detail. Small intentions reveal the life of the large intentions. Most of us live in a small world anyway. And the tinier the particle, the more mysterious it is. The more mystery, the more potential for beauty. And while God is in the detail, the devil is too. Please remember that mishandling research is also our potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much obvious research. It is often a good thing to have emptiness that we can fill with our imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself: How much research is enough? Don’t disease your texts with facts. Focus in on the small detail that reveals the wider world. The key is finding the odd detail that only the experts might know. Find it, use it, but don’t draw too much attention to it … this is the magical pill of all research! Appear to be an expert, even to the experts. The cumulative effect of your attention to detail is what will make your stories sing. Of course, you can’t be so specific that your writing loses its reach. You don’t want to end up just brushing just one tooth.