Researching difficult topics for creative purposes

Warning: The following post contains some discussion of (fictional) suicide and related mental health issues. Read with care. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can offer immediate support or refer to these resources from the National Institute of Mental Health. 

In the course of studying the role of research in creative writing, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and actually, you know, do some research as part of my creative writing. This has led me to discover something about creative research that is very different from the scholarly research I do as part of my job, which is that sometimes it’s hard to research things because they’re embarrassing or the topics are difficult.

Which is to say, there are topics that I’m sure I could find plenty of information on but researching them feels fraught.

For example: at the start of the story I’m currently revising, the main character is recovering from a recent suicide attempt. This seemed like an important aspect of the story to research because I wanted to make sure to capture the character’s experience accurately and with respect but…how?

My first step was to read a book called Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me by Anna Mehler Paperny, which details the author’s own struggle with clinical depression and suicide attempts over the years. Interestingly, one of the issues Paperny addresses is how suicide has become something of a taboo topic, mostly because of worries over suicide contagion. She argues that this has had a silencing effect on people who are thinking about or who have tried to commit suicide, who might benefit from being able to talk about their feelings and experiences more openly.

Hello I Want to Die mostly made it clear to me how much I didn’t know about suicide and depression and how important it was to figure some of this out for my character. For example, what support would he realistically have, beyond that offered by his found family, who are struggling to deal with the fact that they almost lost him this way? Hello I Want to Die also makes it clear that people who try to commit suicide often end up with serious and sometimes permanent physical damage. I wondered, then, what the character’s physical recovery from what happened would look like.

If you’ve ever searched for anything on the internet, you know that your searches have a way of following you. You can clear your history or use “private browsing” all you want; Google knows everything you search and so does every other website you visit.

So basically, I was afraid to do further research about suicide because I didn’t want Google to think I was considering hurting myself.(1) After all, a search engine isn’t going to know the difference between stuff you’re researching for practical purposes and stuff you’re researching for creative/fiction-related purposes.

And besides Hello I Want to Die, I was afraid to check out any books from the library or buy any on Amazon that related too closely to this topic. As a librarian, I know that libraries don’t keep track of items you check out but it would be hard not to notice if someone suddenly put a hold on a bunch of books about suicide and depression. As for Amazon, well. We all know how closely Amazon tracks anything we search on there.

I did end up trying a few searches on Duck Duck Go, a search engine that claims not to track anything you search. I don’t know how much to believe this claim or how much it matters that Duck Duck Go doesn’t track you if your internet browser and all the services you’re logged into still do, but it seemed like the only viable option.(2) I definitely admire Duck Duck Go’s mission but their search results aren’t always the best. (Which, ironically, may be due to their privacy goals.) I never found anything quite in line with what I was looking for.

I suspect the solution to this issue is to decide not to care what Google thinks it knows about me based on what I’ve searched there. I might be able to convince myself to do this if I was working on a project I seriously planned to publish or even share, but I’m finding it’s not something I can overcome my hesitation about for something I’m doing mostly just for fun.

So, yeah. This is definitely a big difference between creative research and scholarly research, at least as far as I’ve experienced both of these things. It’s not something I’ve seen addressed in any of the information I’ve found on creative research so maybe it will be something to keep in mind as I continue to talk to authors more directly as part of my scholarly research. I mean, I’m definitely not going to open a conversation with “How do you do research about suicide?” but I would be interested to know how creative writers approach research about difficult topics like this, because I’m a bit stumped.


(1) Even Googling the resources I link to in the note that precedes this post was a bit of a fraught experience. At the top of the search results, Google included a message reassuring me that “Help is available today,” clearly assuming I was searching this information because I needed immediate help for myself.

(2) I realize I’m starting to sound like a paranoid weirdo but privacy issues like these are part of what I teach for a living, so it’s something I can’t help thinking about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s