On January 15, 1987, I left my office in Bedford early, drove to the post office near my apartment in Arlington, then to the library, and then into Harvard Square to teach a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I put 46 miles on my 1984 Nissan Stanza, going from 37,418 miles to 37,464 miles.
How do I know this? I know this because I was earning some money as writing and had to keep good records. I also know because I am a bit of a pack rat. No one has to keep 29-year-old tax records. In my case, the records take up the first 20 sheets of a small notebook. There was simply too much good blank paper left to throw it away.
I still have essentially all of my notebooks–and probably nearly all of my blue books–from my undergraduate and graduate classes. For example, on November 28, 1989, in a classroom at the Boston University School of Education, I presented a single slide on the idea of advanced organizers to help improve reading comprehension. The slide was based on a 1960 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled, “The Use of Advance Organizers in the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material.” I know this because I still have the slide, done by hand, and a set of notes, and a copy of the original paper. I also took well over 150 pages of notes that semester because writing so many things down always worked for me in helping to learn new things.
(The notebook reminds me that, even though I didn’t finish my degree, I was a pretty good doctoral student.)
Here’s what else I know about November 28, 1989, this time with help from the web:
- It was a Tuesday.
- It started out as an unusually warm day for Boston, with rain in the morning, then a high of 59F that lasted most of a cloudy day. Then it cleared and the temperature dropped precipitously, and by the time I got out out of class (probably around 10:00 pm) the temperature had dropped to the high 30s. The 20-mph winds, though, made it feel like 29.
- The Boston Bruins beat the St. Louis Blues that night, 5-1. Ken “The Rat” Lineseman, one of my favorite players of that era, scored twice. The game was in St. Louis, so I may have been home in time to catch the end.
- Deer hunting season began in Massachusetts (I didn’t even know we had one).
- Further away in the world, the Soviet Union continued to crumble.
- In the midst of the Velvet Revolution, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced it would give up its monopoly on political power.
- In another blow to communism, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci fled to Hungary.
To dig in a little more, I browsed the online Boston Globe through my MIT library credentials. While all these things were happening, the Globe showed what I could not recognize at the time. It was (and is) a provincial paper. Local news–murders, lesser crimes, obituaries of the minor and very-minor–outpaced all of the larger international stories. There were six stories about the Boston Red Sox, even though the season had ended almost two months before.
Why mention all this? I’ve discussed how internet research can provide wonderful raw material for writing. I recently finished writing a short story that I kind of like. It blends a fictional story with a few elements from my own past and, significantly, some events in history. The setting was 1982, and the narrator, like me, was working in the defense industry at a point when the Cold War was still very real and very scary. I remembered certain events of that time, and tracked down the details, read a number of articles about them. It brought the events themselves into sharper focus, but it also helped me understand why the character was as fearful as he was. He had good reason to be, even while many of the people around him were not.
All of this raw material can prove useful. I could base a story in that time. The main character could be based on my life as a graduate student or it could not. It could be the professor listening to the brief presentation. Maybe the professor is irritated or bored or distracted. Maybe it’s a classmate and she has something else more important on her mind. Maybe it’s someone at the Bruins game. Maybe it’s a man setting out to hunt or his son watching him leave. Maybe the man is not well. It’s his last hunt. Maybe his son is with him and is trying to come to terms with what this means.
I could write about some of those ideas without a great deal of additional research at this point. I’ve been that graduate student. I’ve been that professor. I’ve been that fellow student with something else on my mind. I’ve been at Bruins games. But I’ve never been hunting, and I never saw life behind the Iron Curtain. I wouldn’t visit Germany until 2001, when I was in Berlin and there were only vestiges of communist rule left.
I can even keep mining this material for now. I just picked up my mileage log for 1989, turned to a page. On November 7th I drove to Computer Mart of New Hampshire and then returned there on November 9th. I remember Computer Mart as the go-to place for Apple Macintosh repairs. Clearly something had gone wrong with my machine. It had to have been stressful for me. I was at a new job since late September, I was taking that class, I was a newlywed. They were champs, apparently, for getting the computer back to me in two days. Still, that was a long drive, 115 miles round trip. I left work one of those days, picked up the computer, and drove home. I could write about that.