Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Researching Yourself


No, I’m not complaining that I have to do my own research, it’s just that my current work in progress happens to be about me, so I find myself in the strange position of researching my own life, and I’m finding it surprisingly, well, surprising.
In a different lifetime, when I was a fingerprint expert for New York State, I spent a great deal of time chasing down the lives of the Parke family, who were instrumental in instituting the fingerprint system within New York’s prison department.  Uncovering their lives was a diverting bit of detective work that spanned several years.  It might take months, for example, to track down and secure an interview with the nephew of woman who the librarian said used to live in the house the Parkes owned.  (This was before Facebook, Twitter and, for the most part, even e-mail.)  But the thrill of finding a journal, letter or news clipping that opened a window on the world of the Parkes made the effort worthwhile.  Through these documents, I could peek into a strange and foreign world, full of unexpected, and occasionally startling, connections.
Researching my own life has been a bit like that.  It’s taken nowhere near the time (I know where all the journals, photos and letters are kept, after all), but the forgotten details I am digging up often make it seem as if I am reading about someone else’s life.  It’s interesting to read words written by yourself nearly a decade ago that you have no memory of and that leave you wondering just what was in your mind when you wrote them.  Sometimes I’d like to reach back across the years and slap myself upside the head for condensing what later proved to be a significant event into a mere mention, or writing sentences that assume the reader is there with you and knows the context and therefore negates the need for any clarification.
Piecing the details of that two-week period of my life together required nearly as much detective work as it would have for a complete stranger, though the results were more satisfying.  The collateral effect of writing this new book has been a reawakening of the feelings and emotions of my time in Ireland, not a full-blown resurgence (thankfully; I don’t think I could handle it at my age) but more of an echo, sounding down the years, bringing to the forefront of my mind memories of horrible hikes, hot summer days and meeting the woman who, soon after, became my wife.
All and all a strange and satisfying exercise: to unearth forgotten events in a life that seems to have been lived by someone else, and then to look up and see the results of those events all around me, and the main result curled up on the sofa reading a Peter James novel and watching “The Real A&E” on the telly.

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