On the one hand, it’s easy to discount the need for research in memoir. I mean, who knows your life better than you do?
There was actually a good bit of research that went into crafting Girlish. I spoke at length with my siblings, various family members and had many conversations with both my childhood friends and some of my parents’ friends. I read a lot of memoir and poetry by queer authors, including works by Jeanette Winterson, Barrie Jean Borich, Audre Lorde, Mark Doty, Adrienne Rich, and Randy Shilts’ seminal work on the AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On. I wanted to understand my mother and what it was like to be a queer person in her generation. I read An Unquiet Mind to better appreciate how it felt to be bipolar. I read Alysia Abbott’s queerspawn memoir, Fairy Land, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in search of anything resembling my family.
I wrote with a search window open at all times. Google is a wonderful thing for a writer, even if you think you remember everything. My primary goal was to get back in the space of childhood, but there were some facts I needed to iron out as well.
Things I googled for Girlish:
- taxidermy and squirrel anatomy for the chapter on Pearl the Squirrel
- How far Anchorage, Alaska was from Rochester, New York, in aeronautic miles, and how many hours it actually took to fly versus how long it felt.
- The Al-Can highway that runs through Canada and connects Alaska to the continental U.S.
- Airline interiors, logos, flight attendant uniforms.
- The rainbow tunnel in Chicago O’Hare airport, and the subway that ran under SEA-TAC airport.
- Lake Louise, where my father’s campsite was located.
- Nautical charts for Prince William Sound where we sailed with our father and information about the small towns we visited on those journeys.
- My father’s boat registration—where I learned The Ghost was only 28 feet long, and not the 44 my father said.
- Lots of searches on Ancestry.com for actual dates of births, deaths, and divorces.
- Zillow listing for my mother’s house (now completely unrecognizable) as well the condo my dad owned in the 1970s. I thought Dad’s blue ceiling was the most artistic thing I had ever seen as a child, and I was surprised to see it still existed:
I used Google Maps both for street views of practically everywhere we played as children, as well as distances we walked/rode our bikes between various places.
I also physically went back to my hometown and drove around my old neighborhood, visited the now-closed flower shop, and went to the 4th of July fireworks at the town hall.
Some of these facts made it into Girlish, mostly, though, I wanted to double-check my memories and trigger new ones.
Were there really backward facing seats on airplanes in the 1970s? Yes.
Was my backyard so big it took all afternoon to mow? No.