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A Review of The “Backwards” Research Guide for Writers: Part of Our Mini-Series on the Craft of Writing

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The "Backwards" Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration
Sonya Huber
Equinox Publishing, 2011; $37.95

For many people, the word "research" conjures memories of having to write boring high school and college papers -- stacks of books, notecards strewn about, a feeling of overwhelm at the seeming impossible task of organizing data into a cohesive whole. Yet, research is something that writers in any genre need to be comfortable with, and that is Sonya Huber’s main goal in her book [booklink isbn="1845534425" title="The 'Backwards' Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration"]. Drawing from her study of meditation and other contemplative practices, Huber offers an alternative approach to research, one that encourages writers to use their lived experience as the beginning of inquiry.

Huber is an Assistant Professor of creative writing and composition with a background in sociology and anthropology, as well as the author of two books of creative nonfiction and a contributor to Literary Mama. Her novel approach to research has been developed over the course of several years and is based on everything she has learned as a writer and teacher.

The book is structured around three recurring words: Relax, Reflect, and Research. Sections devoted to each of these concepts come together to create the framework for a contemplative research project. Although the book is geared toward students and designed for use in a classroom, writers of any kind of nonfiction (journaling, memoir, essays, creative nonfiction) will appreciate the writing exercises (Huber calls them "Experiments") throughout the book. These exercises can easily be used as stand-alone writing prompts to generate ideas and help writers delve more deeply into their subject matter.

Section I focuses on Relaxing: learning to clear the mind, suspend judgment, build self-observation skills, and allow for the free flow of ideas. This section is about making peace with the discomfort and anxiety that are inevitable in the beginning stages of any project and finding ways to work with those feelings as you clarify the direction of the research. The Experiments in this section are designed to first quiet the mind and then help the reader take inventory of the vast field of research possibilities that stem from her own life experience and interests. I particularly like the final Experiment in this section, "Two Hundred Questions," which invites the reader to come up with 10 questions in 20 different categories such as the body & mind, family, memory, and government & politics. For many writers, this one exercise has the potential to generate ideas enough for months of writing.

In Section II, Huber addresses the Reflection component and builds on Section I by inviting readers to make connections between the personal and the universal. The Experiments in this section ask readers to explore the impact of the environment, culture, and systems surrounding them. Huber borrows an exercise from author Bill Roorbach called "Obsession Notebook" that would be not only fun and revealing for writers, but a great exercise to do with kids. The premise is simple: buy a small notebook (about the size of a deck of cards) and carry it with you everywhere for a week. Make a goal of filling it up with ideas, recurring thoughts, anything that sparks your (or your kids') curiosity. Anything is fair game because the idea here is quantity. Later, you can go through the notebook and take inventory of the recurrent themes and persistent questions you’ve noted and, from there, begin to see which topics might contain the seeds of research projects that address bigger issues.

Research is the focus of Section III, and Huber covers basic techniques of organization and note-taking, as well as offering ideas for various forms of mind-mapping (or "noodling," as she calls it). She also discusses interview and listening skills and encourages readers to engage in the entire research process using the contemplative framework established in the earlier sections.

Section IV, "Open Minds Invite Surprises," brings the Relax-Reflect-Research process together toward a finished project. Huber emphasizes the importance of allowing a project to unfold in unexpected ways. To illustrate this point, she includes an interview with Jill Christman (a 2006 Literary Mama contributor), whose most current book project was inspired by her research into the "practice apartments" that were part of the curriculum for home economics students at Cornell University from 1919 through the late 1950s. The girls in the program lived in these practice apartments, sharing domestic tasks and caring for infants who were "borrowed" from local orphanages. At the time Christman began her research, she was pregnant, very emotional on the topic of babies, and quite judgmental about the program and the people who had been involved with it. But as she got further into the research, judgment was replaced by curiosity, understanding, and compassion. Ultimately, her research took her in a completely different direction than she had envisioned starting out.

Huber ends Section IV with a helpful exploration of the revision process, followed by several appendices, including collections of all the Experiments, recommended reading, and a guide for source citations.

If you have older kids, this book is a great resource to guide them through daunting research tasks for school. And, for mama-writers, even if you thought research days were long past, Huber's contemplative approach and [booklink isbn="1845534425" title="The 'Backwards' Research Guide"] will expand and deepen any writing project.

For previous parts of this series, please see:

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction

Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers

Your Child's Writing Life

What's Your Book?

Mamas Writing Motherhood: A Conversation on New and Best Books on Craft

Alizabeth Rasmussen is a freelance writer and baseball mom who writes essays, creative nonfiction, poetry and lists of all kinds. Her work has appeared most recently on damselfly press and Wild Violet. She is a former food columnist for the West Seattle Herald and the co-creator of Faith Squared, where she blogs regularly. Alizabeth lives in Bellevue, Washington with her teenaged son.

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Huber's book looks very interesting, particularly because she focuses on the free-flow of ideas, which is essential for any act of creativity. I guess the bottom line is that we need to let our left-brain skills be controlled by the right, rather than the other way around!
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