When I find myself more inclined to watch Netflix (or do the dishes or perform any number of other brainless activities) than to write, it’s usually because I’ve stopped doing research. I don’t mean research in the narrow, library database sense—though that can do the trick, too. I mean research in the most roomy and intuitive way possible: reading books I find interesting and falling down Wikipedia black holes and taking the dog on walks to new neighborhoods and wondering why things are the way they are and trying new stuff, like fly fishing or taekwondo or pruning plum trees or knitting sweaters for cats.
Sometimes (every day) I struggle to follow that first, cardinal rule of writing: sit your butt in the chair, keep your butt in the chair. But if I sit my butt in the chair after doing a little research, I often find keeping my butt in the chair (and therefore writing) a whole lot more fun. “The world is everywhere whispering essays,” (and poems and stories), but to write them we must hear them, and I believe that research is the way we listen to the world.
For instance: last summer I adopted a puppy—a floppy-eared fluff ball with soulful brown eyes—who made for an excellent excuse not to write. She was always getting into things and keeping me up at night and piddling on the hardwood floor while my back was turned, and anytime I sat down to write I felt like my brain was so full of puppy stuff that there was little hope of producing a single intelligent sentence. (Little did I know I was just bobbing mid-stream in a river of research, the daily drain of which made it difficult to see or appreciate at the time.) Then one day I realized we had acquired a flea—compliments of the puppy—which had bitten me, repeatedly, on both knees. I’d never really thought about fleas before getting a dog, but now that I’d been bitten by one, feeling threatened by the possibility of invasion, I couldn’t get the thought of fleas out of my mind. I looked them up on the internet, learned that they jumped from their toes instead of their knees; that it was they who caused the black plague, and not the rats; that some scientists believe our species slowly shed their hair specifically to avoid hosting these nearly invisible, blood sucking specks. It was such a powerful itch. And then it was only natural that I would find myself writing an essay on fleas: the research of experience and the research of various Google searches causing my previously empty brain to flow with thought.
In the end, research doesn’t have to be incredibly time-consuming or even particularly distinct from your daily life. Research is an attitude. It means being insatiably curious, listening and watching and wondering and then taking note of what you hear and see and think, so that you can return to your desk and write love letters to the world—because what does paying attention mean, after all, if not falling in love? (In love, even, with fleas.)
 “On the Writing of Essays,” by Alexander Smith
Read Shamae's essay "A Backpack in the River" here.
Shamae is an MFA candidate at Brigham Young University studying creative nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and Prairie Margins. This year, she is the nonfiction editor for Inscape, a journal of literature and art. She lives with her husband, their pet hedgehog, and a very rambunctious puppy.