Monday, 23 October 2017

How I Write, Why I Write by Simone Hanebaum

This is the second blog article in the series How I Write. I have now included a subtitle which is Why I Write? Simone’s response has already validated that new Question. Not only should these articles give students valuable insight into how to write they will hopefully inspire future generations of students to take up the study of history.

I have wanted to be a historian since my high school history teacher led me to fall in love with history. I profoundly believe that history matters, not only intellectually, or socially, but on a personal level as well. I love the archival work and the detective sleuthing it involves, and eventually, the storytelling, and the sharing of that story, that writing enables. The ways in which I have written have evolved and changed as the requirements of my apprenticeship in the discipline and craft of history has changed over the course of my education.

As an undergraduate with a full course load in Canada, I would often have four large term papers due at the end of the twelve-week semester, which often meant one essay was written with 48 hours of mad reading, frantic writing, and very little sleep before I submitted it bleary-eyed, surrounded by several half-empty coffee cups, and an embarrassing amount of junk food wrappers just in time for the deadline set by my professor. I do not recommend this as a writing system at all, nor do I endorse procrastination as a helpful, sexy habit to develop. What I take away from my youthful mistakes though, is that sometimes you will be faced with deadlines, and whether you have years to write a book or thesis, or a day to hammer out a statement requested of you by the local newspaper on an issue pertinent to your research, you will need to sit down, and Get. It. Done. The Germans call it sitzfleisch, literally ‘sitflesh’ or the buttocks and it denotes the ability to sit down and persevere through the task at hand. It will inevitably be a part of your writing.

It goes without saying that to write anything historical you should have prepared by examining primary sources after archival work and reading a lot of secondary literature – you are not writing ‘fake news’ or Donald Trump’s speeches, so you need facts, you need evidence, and you need to listen to what other historians, are writing. It also prevents the embarrassing situation of thinking you are absolutely brilliant with your discovery of something extraordinary and groundbreaking and realizing that a historian said the same thing a decade before. But similarly, it also illuminates where you have found something brilliant and extraordinary, which should hopefully form the basis of whatever piece you are writing.

So you have your brilliant idea, now what? Write it down. Somewhere, wherever works best for you. I keep a research journal full of my ideas, my notes, my archival trips so that I have this information at hand. I also colour code entries based on what they are, paginate the pages and then create a table of contents elsewhere so I can find these thoughts later. I also write the dates of when I was using a journal since I have accrued multiple journals over the years. I keep my research journal on me most places I go because I do inevitably have an idea when I am trying to fall asleep when I’m in the shower, or when I am mid-conversation with someone (yes, I have stopped talking to jot things down). 

You do not have to write your essay in the journal but note your thoughts about a particular source, the questions you have, the outline of the paper, and other ideas you might have. This notebook is also space where I do free writing where I tackle the questions I am still hazy on, or on themes I have not quite wrapped by head around as well. I have not been paid to endorse them, but I love Moleskine’s classical black ruled notebooks to use as my research journals. I am an unashamed stationary nerd, so I love the heavy weight of the paper, and the durability of the spines and covers. The associations with Ernest Hemingway are nice too as I hope in vain that his writing genius will somehow be transported across time to me. I also use a fountain pen to write in my journal. Whether it is Moleskine or a journal with unicorns on it, having good stationary, you love and makes you feel good will always help encourage you to use your notebook.

Once I have my ideas, I create an essay outline that plots what I will discuss and when – it should always have a statement of what my argument is and I try to articulate the larger ‘so what’ questions – why does this matter, why is it important – on it as well. This argument and the particularly questions one may be answering over the course of a larger work, such as an honours thesis or master’s thesis, will act as anchors for your work.

Now the tricky part – the writing. Nothing is harder than getting started. You will clean your room or flat. You will try a new recipe. You will organize your entire wardrobe by colour or alphabetize your wardrobe or discover that it is really time that you worked on your Italian. Productive procrastination has often preceded my writing. Do these things if it will create a space conducive to writing, but it is procrastination. You will need to write. Trying to get started can be crippling, even with a plan. 

So I start small. I give myself daily writing goals of 500 words, because it is a small, manageable task and I know it will not take much time to write either. If writing those 500 words is as painful as visiting the dentist, I do not write more and I step away satisfied that I met a goal. But more often than not the ideas and prose start flowing and I write more, and I fall into a rhythm and before you know it I have 700-1000 words and an hour and a half has passed. I often start writing with the contextual information or biographical information because it is incredibly easy to write and helps situate myself, even more than it will eventually situate my reader. Making writing manageable makes it feel far less daunting an endeavour.

Where and when you write can have a huge impact on the writing process. That post-lunch sleepy slump in the afternoon? Forget about it. I tend to write better in the mornings and after that slump has passed. Some people are very nocturnal and prefer writing in the wee hours of the morning – I prefer to be sound asleep by then but knowing your best rhythm that suits your lifestyle will help. Where you feel most productive really helps as well. My success working from home is unreliable at best because I get distracted by Netflix and food so I write, when I have had access to them, in offices, or in libraries. Some people love cafes but the coffees do add up and my inquisitorial nature (okay nosiness – an important trait in the historian) means that I will invariably eavesdrop rather than work on my writing. Some people love the chatter and white noise though and are not as cheap as I am. I throw on motivational music that is instrumental or in foreign languages (mostly so I don’t sing and dance along). 

Some instrumental EDM beats can really get my writing going, or I like listening incredible film or television soundtracks like those from Westworld or The Borgias. When I do write from home, I like to write in a good ergonomic chair, and I have invested in a laptop tray that converts to a standing desk when I put it on my desk, or a floor desk when I sit on the floor; I suffer from a great deal of lower back pain so I have to vary the positions in which I write (be careful, this is a career hazard for many of us in sedentary work!). Knowing what sort of environment works best for you will always help. And when I work in libraries, I like having a buddy, usually a colleague, who is also in the process of writing. You can hold each other accountable when Facebook or Reddit are seductive distractions, and writing can be a rather lonely experience. 

Having a cohort of friends you can alongside with means you have someone to take a break with, or when they study or work on what you do, you have someone to bounce ideas off of. I also find a cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of red wine or scotch, when appropriate and in excessive amounts for the former two and more modest amounts for the latter two, can help make the writing process much more enjoyable.

Once I have finished writing, I (ideally) step away from it and forget about it for a couple of days. Writing can be an incredibly personal experience. It is hard to make the necessary edits and changes – like making sure you actually have answered your question, that the prose flows properly, or cutting unnecessary material – when you are too close to your text. I often do this by printing out a hard copy of my essay so I can read it better and annotate it, or I read it aloud and listen to how the prose sounds. As a postgraduate student I have also always set deadlines with my supervisors to get writing done. They did not require deadlines, but I did; it is a habitual hangover from my undergraduate days. 

Once I have written and revised my writing then it is sent off to my supervisor for comments, or to a peer for feedback, or to a journal’s editorial board, and then promptly celebrated with a reward such as dinner with friends. And then you repeat the process all over again for the next paper, the chapter, the next article, or the next book, or the eventual revisions to come.

Being honest with myself and my writing process ensures that I can write as effectively as possible. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and playing to them can help get words on the page, and allow your creativity and ideas to flourish. 

Writing is the easiest when you have passion for what you are writing and when you are driven by the indescribable excitement you feel when you know the argument, where it is going and everything else falls into place. When this happens, usually in an ideal writing location and time, the words just flow and it is incredible how you feel when you know that what you are writing is not only intellectually excellent but also written well.  There is no feeling like it, and that is real joy of writing, that marriage between your conceptual ideas and your prose. But it has never been constant in my writing experience; sometimes your main goal is just getting words on the page that bear some semblance to English. And that’s okay too.

Simone Hanebaum, B.A., M.A. (SFU) is a third-year research student at the University of Cambridge working on memory, identity, and monumentality in early modern England, 1550-1650, under the supervision of Dr Alexandra Walsham.