Working Through Research Anxiety

August alt 2On almost every night around 9:30, you will find me enthusiastically darting up and down the street in front of my house, treat bag wrapped around my waist, my dog Zephyr at my side, wearing the human equivalent of noise cancelling headphones and looking at me warily, waiting for a reason why he should venture out into the great big badness that is the dark.

To him, the dark means evil things like fireworks and thunder that make far too much noise. Zephyr became so anxious about the prospect of scary noises in the dark that he refused to go out at night.

We started working on his fears where progress is measured in millimeters. If I can get him to want to move a quarter of inch further down the street, it is a successful night. Of course, inevitably after a big success, say two inches, he backslides and will barely get beyond the front yard again. It is in those moments that I feel so out of my element, so overwhelmed about the task put out in front of me—to get Zephyr over his fear of the dark before darkness starts descending at 4:30 pm. I am not an animal behaviorist. I’m not even a dog trainer. He’s got a multi-layered problem matched against my very basic knowledge. I do what I can, but there are nights after a ten-minute “walk” with him that I just want to curl up and cry because I feel so ill equipped to help him.

In the past, whenever I became overwhelmed in the rest of my life, I was able to drop into my fictional world of Carbon Creek and listen in on what my characters were doing. They had problems, but I knew the outcome to those problems. I created them after all. But now that novel is in a drawer, resting, while I work on a new project about a topic I know little about set in a time between the World Wars. It’s hard to escape to a place where I don’t even know what type of footwear my characters should be wearing. The amount of research I need to do is overwhelming. In my first scene, I’ve already noted a half-dozen points that I have to investigate to make sure what I’ve written is accurate.

You would think in the age of Google, research would be easy, but to me it’s not. I learned how to research using indexes and paper. Information was limited. There was the potential that you could read all of it and become versed in the topic. Not so anymore. If you do manage to read all of the information, there is always more being created. The mere thought of how much is out there can make a mind shut down, frozen into inactivity, which is just what Zephyr does. He shuts down when he hears very loud and constant noise, especially when he can’t tell where it’s coming from. His whole body freezes, along with his mind, and he cannot move. So once again, I find myself learning novel writing from my dog.

In order to help Zephyr get over his anxiety, here is what I do: 1) meticulously record everything about our training sessions, down to what he ate that day, the weather, and what my mood is (he’s a terribly sensitive four-legged dude), 2) interject play during the process of getting him over his fears, and 3) celebrate the smallest accomplishment.

The first item is the only way the third item can occur. As I’ve mentioned, success comes in small increments. If I don’t write down that we made it beyond the sign post, not just to the sign post, I’d miss it. I spent weeks getting him to the same point on the sidewalk and no further; a little movement forward is cause for extreme celebration. Zephyr and I often party with high-fives (Yes, he does this. His nose to my palm, all four paws off the ground.), or I’ll toss some treats around for him to sniff out and find (more of a thought experiment for him in that he can’t smell anything dropped in front of him – a scent hound he most certainly is not).

I can do the same things myself as I navigate through all of the research. I have a running list of items great and small that I need to look into. Then I celebrate. Learn at what point the 1929 stock market crash was referred to as the “crash”—take a sip of wine. Figure out what types of banners marchers carried in small town parades in the 1930s—eat a square of chocolate.

As for number two, I’ve recently learned that by turning our nightly ventures into a game, things go more smoothly with Zephyr. We start our forays out into the big bad darkness by playing a little in the house. Then when we venture out beyond the gate. We play chase games or tug or some impulse control games. This keeps things interesting to Zephyr, and he can focus on what thing his human is going to do so he can earn a reward rather than the loud chatter behind the fence across the street or the car door slamming next to him. He can’t take his phobia as seriously if I have a piece of rabbit fur in my hand at the ready as soon as I give him the okay to chase it.

And so goes it with my research. I haven’t really turned the process into a game, but I do find the fun in exploring a new era and learning a new discipline. I try to embrace what I’m discovering, not yet paring it down only to the things that will show up in my novel. I’m finding joy in what I am discovering and then marveling at the notion that I can then mold the information into the story I want to tell. There’s game in that.

As I’ve done with Zephyr’s rehab, measuring inch by inch of progress, I am delighting in and celebrating the new knowledge that I am gaining. Little bit by tiny little bit, I’ll gather what I need to know to tell a compelling story, and hopefully, by the time my research is done, Zephyr will have conquered his fear of the dark.

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