Writing History that Matters


In her keynote address at this weekend’s Barnes Conference at Temple University, Danielle McGuire spoke to us about writing history that matters; history that does work in the present; history that people actually want to read. If you’ve read At the Dark End of the Street, you know McGuire knows what she’s talking about. The book is easy to read and extremely powerful. And it’s something that nearly anyone can pick up and read because it’s a story that revolves around real people doing extraordinary things. Who doesn’t like a good story?

(A teaser: you know how Rosa Parks, that docile seamstress, got the civil rights movement started because she was tired one day and refused to give up her seat on the bus? Yeah, that story? It’s all wrong. Read McGuire’s book!)

The first real lecture I ever gave was about the civil rights movement. First lectures are often famous disasters, but mine was not. Whatever mistakes I may have made, they were covered by one good move: I relentlessly relied on a few good books, McGuire’s first among them. Because of that, one of the students came up to me after the lecture and said she had never heard the story of the civil rights movement told like that before. She was moved. Thanks to McGuire.

McGuire’s keynote address was funny and inspiring. Here are a few of my idiosyncratic takeaways:

–When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t have to write a dissertation. I just have to write a page. (This is extremely important!)

–Consider putting all the historiography in the footnotes, even in the dissertation. I want to do this.

–Who are the main characters in my story? (I don’t know?….)

–Learn to love editing. Throw stuff down on the page no matter how bad it is. Six dozen edits later, it won’t be bad.

–Read fiction! (What if it’s bad fiction?) Think about the kinds of things that authors of fiction think about: pacing, narrative arc, character development. As historians, we impose some kind of order on the chaos and fragmentation of the archives. We tell stories that are very much our own, that do not exist independently of us. We might as well make them good stories while we’re at it. They don’t have to be bloodless.

–Read James Baldwin. This needs no reason or justification.

–Reckon with the emotional toll of the dissertation. The hardest obstacles are not technical. They’re not even cognitive. They’re matters of spirit. Do I have something worth saying? Am I writing something that matters? Do I have the guts to see it through? To write that bad draft and revise it, to show it to others, is to face over and over again your fallibility.

–Trust your learning; trust your students. After years of marinating in the past, we historians have ways of thinking that are useful to undergraduates. Don’t push too hard. Trust the process. They will not become historical thinkers in a semester, but if you let them see how and why the past has moved you, they will not be unmoved.

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