Historians and the Creative Process

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When you first start out with the idea that you might like to be a historian it is easy to imagine that historians are scribes of some kind. Novelists, of course, are creators. They have to invent the stories they write. But historians only need to look at old documents and tell us what they say.

Maybe none of us were quite that naive when we started out, but I do think it’s fair to say that until we begin to really write and publish we have no concept of the extent to which historians—and all nonfiction writers I suppose—are engaged in a creative process. We, too, invent the stories we write.

In our age of proud skepticism and militant ignorance it is perhaps dangerous to suggest that historians are “inventing stories.” This could easily be misunderstood. We’re not making things up. But at every turn in a writing project, we encounter questions that require us to be creators rather than mere scribes of “what happened.”

As historians know, but the public might not, choosing what to write about is a creative and rather arbitrary decision. Lots of stuff happened in the past. It could mean lots of things. What do you cut out and what do you include? Philosophically, one could argue that everything is chaos and that there is no particular direction to events. Good luck writing history that way.

Instead of transcribing the chaos, we must make creative decisions that bring order to it. We create a narrative and sense of movement by the people and things we choose to emphasize. We are interpreters of events that don’t explain themselves. We don’t uncover the obvious meaning that was there all along; we bring meaning to it by bringing the past and present into contact with each other.

A few weeks ago there was a question going around twitter about what is obvious within one’s profession but not obvious to the public. For historians, the creative process is one of those things. It is easy for the public to believe that historians are people who know lots of facts about the past. While it is true that we end up knowing lots of stuff, that doesn’t make us historians. Without the work of interpretation—an essentially creative process—we’re just good trivial pursuit players.

Depending what we’re writing about, we may feel we get to know our “characters” in a special way. But we can’t, like a novelist, invent the quintessential episode or perfect bit of dialogue that lets the reader in on our secret knowledge. We have to figure out how all the thousands of things that the person actually said and did can be crafted to present the character we believe we have come to know.

And dialogue! Uggh! Sometimes we wish we could put words in their mouths instead of wrestling with how to communicate the essential meaning of old letters, memos, and speeches written with odd grammar in obscure contexts.

Where does the story begin and where does it end? It has to start somewhere and it can’t go on forever. These are creative decisions that, in the best case scenario, emerge organically out of the story we’re telling. While working on one dissertation chapter in the past couple weeks, an entire new chapter rose up out of the mist, unknown to me before. The ending is still clarifying itself.

One of the oddest things about the creative process is that we don’t make all these decisions at the front end and then write what we decided to write. Maybe there are a few geniuses here and there who do this, but it doesn’t work that way for me at all. Instead, only the act of writing begins to bring the story into view. In that sense, writing feels more like a collaboration—your conscious efforts, your unconscious self, and the historical actors all working together—than a solo project.

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