Tag Archives: historical writing

The abject dread of putting words on paper

I’m at that point where it’s time to take the notes and outlines I’ve generated for my dissertation and start putting readable text on paper.  I should be psyched, but I’m terrified.  It’s like jumping off a cliff using a bungee cord made of dental floss.

Up until now, my dissertation has existed only in my own head, and as long it stays there, it can remain the platonic ideal of everything I want it to be.  But once I actualize it, it’ll never live up to that ideal.  It will only be as good as my own shortcomings as a researcher and writer allow.  The longer I delay putting words on paper, the longer I can avoid the dismay of realizing how far short of the ideal it’ll fall.

That’s always been the single greatest obstacle to my productivity.  The same fear of actualizing a project plagues me whenever I try to write something.  After I finished my master’s thesis, I could’ve turned it into a couple of scholarly articles in a matter of months, since the research and writing was more or less done.  But it literally took me years to send one of the chapters off for publication.  It didn’t take years to do the revisions, mind you, but to muster up the gumption to sit down and see it through.  I had the same experience trying to turn a seminar paper into an article draft this past summer…and again this past week, while trying to figure out how to articulate this dilemma for the blog post you’re now reading.  A good third of the posts I start to write for this blog end up in the trash bin for that same reason.

Lyman C. Draper, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one reason I’ve always felt a kind of kinship with nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper.  Like me, Draper was fascinated by the early frontier.  Also like me, he had a special affinity for the King’s Mountain; the only book he saw through to publication was a history of the battle.  He accumulated enough material, however, to write a shelf full of books on pioneers and frontier battles.  In fact, he conceived a number of book-length projects over the years: biographies of Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, a volume of “border forays,” collected sketches of prominent frontiersmen, and so on.

But he couldn’t bring any of them to completion.  Even the one book he managed to get published was plagued by delays.  Draper set out to write his King’s Mountain study at the instigation of colleagues who wanted him to get it out in time for the battle’s centennial.  He missed it by a year, in spite of his publisher’s incessant pleas to hurry things along.  He just couldn’t stop tweaking, double-checking, and accumulating more and more data.

Historians have attributed Draper’s lack of publications to a number of factors.  First and foremost, he was a collector and aggregator, happiest when he was transcribing manuscripts and interviewing pioneers and their descendants.  He was also an obsessive fact-checker who insisted on verifying every obscure scrap of local tradition he came across.  Finally, he had a streak of hypochondria a mile wide, and his repeated bouts with illnesses both real and imaginary interrupted his workflow.

But I think part of the problem was simple anxiety of the same sort that paralyzes me when I try to write out a piece of research.  The problem wasn’t that Draper had a poor work ethic.  He approached the task of chronicling frontier history with an almost religious zeal.  And I suspect it was that very zeal that helped do him in.  He knew he was sitting on a goldmine of material, and I think he feared that when he set pen to paper the results wouldn’t do his sources justice.  It was easier to go on collecting, and to let the platonic ideal of his book projects live on in his head and in his notes, where they could remain unsullied.  And, to be honest, Draper was a much better aggregator than a writer; his King’s Mountain book is more valuable for the material contained therein than as a work of historical literature.

Draper is one of my personal heroes, but he also serves as something of a cautionary tale.  For as long as I can remember—for much longer than I’ve wanted to be a historian, in fact—I’ve wanted to find things out and then write books about them.  But I’ve idealized the process of research and writing to such an extent that actually doing it paralyzes me to the point of inaction.

Being in grad school has helped, since I’m accountable to people who don’t hesitate to kick me in the pants when I’m not generating drafts.  And I feel better knowing I have access to professional mentors who can critique my work before I send it off for publication.  Once they tell me it’s up to snuff, I can let go of some of my own nagging feelings that it’s inadequate.

They say a pretty good project that’s completed is better than an outstanding one left undone.  And as far as one’s CV is concerned, I’m sure that’s true.  The hard part is internalizing that fact enough to put it into action.

And on that note, I need to get back to work.

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Can academic historians get writer’s block?

Not long ago I finished reading Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing for one of my classes.  Silvia is a psychologist, and some of the book is aimed specifically at people working in that discipline, but I’d recommend it to anybody who has trouble cranking out the theses, dissertations, journal articles, and books on which our livelihood supposedly depends.

There is, however, one passage of the book with which I take issue.  It’s the part about writer’s block.  Silvia doesn’t believe in it, at least as far as academic writers are concerned (p. 45):

Academic writers cannot get writer’s block.  Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department.  You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart.  The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might.  People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out to friends whom they wish to inspire.  Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.

Writer’s block, he says, just means you’re not writing.  All you need to do is start.  It sounds pretty straightforward.  In my experience, alas, that’s not how it works.  I think we’ve all had those occasions where we’re sitting in front of the computer, ready and willing, but the words and ideas just wouldn’t come.

Academic writers have to figure out how to articulate complex ideas and abstract concepts, tie them together, organize them, and present them persuasively.  We write to solve problems and to explain to others how we’ve arrived at our solutions.  You can’t do that without a little inspiration.  You can’t even come up with the problems themselves without inspiration, without a certain spark of creativity and insight that isn’t always forthcoming.

We might not be artists, but successful writers of any sort need something to say, and they need to know how to say it.  That sort of thing isn’t always on tap, even when you’ve got the discipline to sit down at a keyboard.

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Don’t fear the Dark Side

There’s an interesting post over at Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf.  Its main concern is the state of Civil War historiography, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role of narrative in historical writing.

Narrative history is one of those loaded terms.  When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (who is a first-rate scholar) had recently put out a successful book with a commercial publisher.  One day in class, the subject of “literary” history came up.  The professor made some wry remark about having “gone over to the Dark Side.”  He wasn’t talking about writing a popular book.  He was referring to its narrative format.

Part of me gets this dichotomy between narrative and analysis.  I completely agree that the historian’s reason for being is to understand the past and then to convey what he’s found.  The historian is not first and foremost a storyteller—although if he tells a good yarn in the process, then so much the better.  Few things irritate me more than reading Amazon.com reviews in which the reader says he loved a history book because “it was just like reading a novel,” or because he “got so caught up in the story.”  And I’m fully aware that a narrative framework imposes certain limitations on the historian, as does any other framework.

Still, I think we tend to draw too stark a distinction in terms of quality and seriousness between narrative history and whatever else it is that narrative history isn’t.  Most narrative history, if it’s written by any scholar worth his salt, will almost inevitably analyze and explain as well as relate the course of events.

I’d submit that every narrative historian, to one degree or another, will use the technique that David Hackett Fischer—whose body of work I admire as much as that of any living historian—calls “braided narrative.”  In two outstanding books, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, Fischer unashamedly employs a chronological approach, while interweaving analysis throughout.  The narrative and analysis work hand-in-hand to relate the events in question as completely as possible.  It’s an extremely effective approach, but I think the main difference between Fischer and other writers of narrative is that he’s more explicit about employing it, and employs it more extensively.  Any writer of history who uses a narrative framework will have to weave in some analysis to one degree or another, simply because you can’t really explain anything without doing it.

Actually, it’s worth asking when a given historical work becomes narrative history.  Is it when chronology is the main organizational technique?  That raises some problems.  Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom is generally chronological, but I don’t think anyone would call it a narrative.  Technically it tells a story—the story of colonial Virginia’s plantation labor system and its impact on notions of liberty and race—but within that general chronological framework, it’s thick with analysis.

Does a historical work become narrative when it relates a discrete sequence of events, following principles of time and location?  This, too, is somewhat problematic.  The author of even the most straightforward campaign study or account of a particular event (or series of events) will periodically stop his account for exposition or to summarize a conclusion.  Indeed, when John Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive, his primary motive, as he says, was to “tell a story,” and that’s exactly what he did.  But major portions of the book are pure analysis and exposition.  Demos uses the story as a means to dissect colonial family life, Indian culture, French missions, and so on.  The book is as much an examination of the three-way relationship between English, French, and Indians in early America as it is a relation of the story of its main characters.

In fact, the history books that seem to me to be closest to pure narrative are the volumes in Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” series.  And they contain so much imaginative reconstruction that tthey seem to me to be more non-fiction novels than historical works, so even here the designation “narrative history” is questionable.

I don’t think writing narrative is tantamount to going over to the dark side.  The only dark side in historical writing is doing bad history.  There’s definitely plenty of bad narrative history out there, just as there’s plenty of mediocre analytical history.  What separates good historical scholarship from bad is the quality of the questions asked and answers provided.

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