Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2008
Column: Bears Examing #7: Dirty Secrets by Elizabeth Bear
I have a dirty secret.
I love crime investigation documentaries.
Not the true-crime sort of stuff, where a portentous announcer takes you through the murder and investigation and trial—those tend to be a little too exploitative for me, and a little too surfacy. What does it for me are the television programs where a cameraman is more or less on ride-along with a group of homicide detectives while they work a case, from 911 call to arrest… or failure to arrest anybody.
Those are awesome. I take notes.
Not because I plan to kill anybody… real. But because for a lot of my work—including the recently completed first season of the internet serial Shadow Unit—it’s handy to know the many and varied means by which the cops can identify a murder suspect. Evidence collection is interesting, and the real stuff is much more interesting, and cool, and prone to error, than the stuff they show on C.S.I.
And it involves a heck of a lot less technological magic, and a lot more painstaking footwork. Persistence. Pig-headedness. Obdurancy.
And endless hours of interrogation.
Good cop work is about working the basics until inspiration strikes, and then testing that inspiration over and over again. That’s much more interesting to me than David Caruso and his mirrorshades. Also, these programs are a wonderful source of clever dialogue. And the characters. I am learning so much about characterization from these things.
And that’s the reason I find them so addictive. Because I am learning so very much from them, that’s useful to me in my own work. And learning is in some ways at the core of what I do. I also have shelves of books on forensics, criminal investigation, criminology. Crime scene photos… so much like not on TV, man. (There was this one time I was reading about David Parker Ray before bedtime, and was awakened by the cat jumping on my pillow around 3 am. I think there are still fingernails in my ceiling.)
I have read about human medical dissection in the 17th century, the maneating lions of Tsavo, family compounds in China at the time of cultural revolution, silkworm culture. I have taken up rock-climbing, archery, and guitar to become a better writer. I’ve worn a sword and ridden a horse and gotten my heart broken. (I drew the line at skydiving. Too expensive to take up seriously, because I’m pretty sure I’d like it. But I did read up a bunch.)
I’m not very good at any of things, mind you. But the single most useful thing that writing has taught me is how to learn.
Learning isn’t something I, er, learned how to do until I was in my thirties; I never really had to learn anything in school, which I got through by the time-honored method of floating through, and certainly nobody ever taught me “learning skills.” But the thing about any of the arts is that—with the exception of a very few phenomenally talented people—doing them well is the result of years and years of painstaking, repetitive, considered work. And I had to do that work, and figure out for myself how to go about the practice, to become a successful artist.
The big secret is this: learning is about failing. It’s about trying very, very hard to do something that’s a little bit harder than you can pull off, and then not pulling it off, and then trying again and again until you complete it—no matter how awkwardly. And it’s also about attempting harder and harder things, so that you’re always working on something that’s just a little beyond the edge of your ability. Because you don’t get better if you stay within your ability. Hundreds of basketball coaches and drill sergeants can’t be wrong: you have to push yourself.
But there’s a corollary. If all you ever attempt is things you can’t do, the result is discouragement. And also, coming back to things you can do, going over them again and again—like playing scales—builds technique and confidence, and helps to internalize them, make them automatic and effortless… so you have more brain power left over for the new, hard thing you are trying to accomplish.
You have to ask questions. Sometimes go over the same ground a thousand times. Practice those scales endlessly, just like the old joke about Carnegie Hall.
It all comes down to painstaking footwork. Persistence. Pig-headedness. Obdurancy.
And endless hours of interrogation. Which sometimes amounts to asking Why me, oh Lord? Why me?