In the 19th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall (Scribner), discusses his propensity for revision and his enthusiasm for research.
A better way to ask that is to ask if I've ever written a sentence in one sitting and not revised it later! Indeed, stories routinely take me five or six months to write, working every day, weekends, too, and I'd be surprised if a single sentence has ever once survived wholly intact from the moment I've typed it out all the way to the finished story.
For me one of the chief pleasures of working on short stories is their manageable size compared with longer forms. Each time I return in the morning to the work—unless the story I'm writing is over, say, 10,000 words—I can read through everything I’ve written so far. And so, in that way, I can reenter the rhythm of the prose I’ve already laid out; I can reenter the feel and mood of the story. And as I read through, I’ll make changes the whole way. In that sense I’m in total agreement with Poe that a story offers a force of totality that cannot be approached by anything (novels, epic poems) that cannot be read in a single sitting.
What kind of research, if any, do you do?
I am researching all the time. For me research is traveling, or studying snowflakes with a magnifying glass, or excavating my memories, or reading about violin makers on the Internet. Research is going to the World Center for Birds of Prey, as I did a couple of months ago, where a friend opened a steel cabinet, slid out the top drawer, and showed me a passenger pigeon with a paper tag tied around its left ankle: “Chicago Market, 1886.”
The world is so fundamentally interesting and it makes me fall in love with it a dozen times a day. Part of my goal as a writer is to say to a reader: Look at this life we’re living, look how enormous the scales of time are, look how incredibly old and marvelous this situation is we’ve lucked into. As I write, I tend to use imagination and research in tandem to buttress the lives of my characters. I look back through my journals, I look at photos in archives or on the Web, I read naturalists’ accounts, I talk to fishermen: anything that can help me evoke the places and lives I'm writing about.