The Historian as Writer, in Letters

This week Erstwhile’s Alessandra Link meditates on the creative possibilities and common stressors that touch writers during these unsettling times. Drawing inspiration from Aaron Sachs’s “Letters to a Tenured Historian,”[1] Link considers the seeming tensions between the craft of writing and the disciplinary requirements of the historical profession in a series of letters to a revered author.

Dear Esteemed Writer,

I bristle at the thought of you reading this, scrutinizing every word, indistinct sounds of displeasure punctuating the silence of your study. You’re the kind of audience I don’t usually call to mind when writing.  Seeing as good writers only read good writers, I figure you cannot risk bogging down in the “halfway decent” or “finding their voice” swamps.[2]

This begs the question: what kind of audience do you imagine when you write? One of my favorite scholarly writers, Elliot West, revealed that he places an empty chair across from his desk before setting to work. Who might be fortunate enough to take such a seat? An intelligent alien. This extraterrestrial audience, with its combination of astuteness and foreignness, calls for just the right amount of explanation and wit.

More and more our great mentors in graduate school advise us to write for a public audience. Don’t imagine five chairs occupied by your dissertation advisors, lurking behind your decrepit library carrel. Imagine a broader audience, they say. Think bigger, they say. Sometimes I’ll imagine my great grandmother. While she’s no stand in for a “public,” she was a no-nonsense, get-to-the-point, I-don’t-have-all-day kind of woman. Thinking of her gets me to work. Sometimes I try to summon up a “public,” conjuring up a faceless mass and often getting lost in the crowd. Could you provide some sort of strategy for finding my way?

With gratitude,

An Aspiring Writer

Number of revisions: 5


Fuel for the writer. Photograph by author.

Dear Esteemed Writer,

How edifying, your letter. As with most worthwhile endeavors, the process of visualizing an audience takes time. And patience. And without a doubt, courage. While writing I confront the darkest corners of my soul, those regions that house my inner critic. When I‘m not seated at my desk, my critic communicates in hushed tones. To write is to turn up the volume and let the darkest parts of me scream.

“You’re not good enough!” The critic screeches. “This is a task reserved for the wise!”

Is that why so many great writers are also humble ones? They are—you are—engaged in the daily practice of wrestling with the critic. We’re all stumbling towards a voice, babbling about and hoping that one day it might cohere into something bigger, something significant.

Add to that daily wrangling the historian’s commitment to accuracy. While historians have long tossed aside any notion that we communicate an objective, unspoiled truth, we certainly strive to produce written work that is grounded in evidence—work that conveys certain truths. If my critic doesn’t stop the pit-patter of my fingers on the keyboard, then the weight of ensuring that I am doing a service to the past will. Or, more accurately, the fear that I am doing an injustice—nay, violence—to the past. That fear alone can halt my digits in mid-motion. What I’m looking for in my writing is a product that weaves together the poetic and the precise, the truths with some of the best narrative strategies from our fictions. I aspire to be what the great writer-thinker Maria Popova calls “elucidators,” writers who “go beyond explanation and into illumination.”[3]

I’m ashamed to say that I went through all of my undergraduate and the first portion of my graduate careers without thinking much about writing, let alone identifying as a writer. I strove for clarity of language, but I lacked that insatiable appetite for captivating prose that drives the most engaging of authors. My writing was derivative and schematic. A bore, really.

Thankfully, a graduate course with a historian-writer sent me down a different path. Virginia Scharff made a compelling case for the craft and worked tirelessly (with a bit of frustration, I’m sure) to tease out the tangle of prose I’d pass along each week. Since taking that course I’ve allowed myself the uncomfortable luxury of identifying as a writer.

Identification, however, does little to dispel those unsettling emotions that rise to the surface when I sink into my chair. Does this all appear to be an elaborate form of self-handicapping?  Sure, that’s part of it. When the writing gets tough, the tough get to writing. The rest of us succumb to our neuroses, or what Anne Lamott identifies as perfectionism. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” Lamott warns, “it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” There’s the old graduate student adage that the more we learn the more insecure we become. The leading text on job preparation for PhDs advises us to most certainly not be ourselves when seeking employment. But the fears, they’re real. So I ask, do they dissipate with practice? Is it a matter of waiting it out? Or, perhaps, writing it out? In this “terrible tug of war,” as N. Scott Momaday calls it, between our writing-induced fears and a firm conviction that we must write, does one side eventually relinquish the rope?

I couldn’t even begin my first letter to you without denigrating my own writing, casting a buffer against criticism by presenting myself as substandard. Only then could I begin to string sentences together before you.

Paralyzed by fear,

An Aspiring Writer

Number of words I had to confirm the definition of in this letter: 1

Number of thesaurus references: 2

Dear Esteemed Writer,

Poetry remains impenetrable. Is all hope lost?

Wading through verse,

An Aspiring Writer

Dear Esteemed Writer,

My previous letters appear almost trite and superficial, given what is now facing our nation. There are moments when I am drawn away from writing and instead towards political and social engagements that might yield more concrete and swift results.

But then again, I’m mindful of the subversive and revolutionary potential of writing, the opportunities it provides to speak inconvenient truths, to chip away at power. “Every line we succeed in publishing today—no matter how uncertain the future to which we entrust it,” German-Jewish essayist Walter Benjamin wrote in the midst of WWII’s turmoil, “is a victory wrenched from the powers of darkness.”

There is hope in writing. An embrace of the unknown, of uncertainty. No one starts out writing with an impeccable sense of direction.[4] Only after countless hours genuflecting before the page might I begin to see something anew. And as Rebecca Solnit reminds me, neither can an activist begin work with a sense of certainty and a goal of perfection. Both traits—certitude and perfectionism—stymie writer and activist alike. On certainty, I take solace in knowing that we cannot see our future work or our future world. And perfection, to borrow Solnit’s words, “is a stick with which to beat the possible.”

A willingness to begin again, to make room for imperfection (or, as Lamott famously declares, for sh*tty first drafts), to uncover hidden aspects of our pasts, these writerly duties push this writer forward.

Keeping the faith,

A Writer

Number of words I made up in this letter: 1

[1] Special thanks to Erstwhile’s Graeme Pente and Julia Frankenbach for introducing the author to this text.

[2] Given recent events, this word conjures up a unique brand of disgust. Consider rewording.

[3] The “elucidator” is no match for Popova’s “enchanter,” but I haven’t written nearly enough (and perhaps lived long enough) to set my sights on enchanting.

[4] Right? Maybe this is where a healthy dose of blind confidence goes a long way.

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