Monday, 14 May 2018

Why I Write and How I Write Jodie Collins

Up until the age of 19 I was quite certain that I was not a writer, let alone a historian. Despite the fact I had such an interest in politics and history, I found writing an excruciating process, and I had failed history at college. I am now, 7 years later, in the beginnings of a PhD in American History in a collaborative project between the University of Sussex and the British Library, specifically analysing the political pamphlets of interwar America.

Without going into too much detail, getting to this point was not straight forward, and was owed a lot to both personal and political development. But fundamentally, as I began to understand the concept of historical materialism, history began to make much more sense to me, and in turn this not only made writing an easier process for me, but an enjoyable one. Historical materialism is concerned with analysing the fundamental forces which drive history forward.

 As Lenin put it: By examining … all ideas and all the various tendencies stem from the condition of the material forces of production, Marxism indicated the way to an all-embracing and comprehensive study of the process of the rise, development, and decline of socio-economic systems. People make their own history but what determines the motives of people, of the mass of people—i.e., what is the sum total of all these clashes in the mass of human societies? What are the objective conditions of production of material life that form the basis of all man’s historical activity? What is the law of development of these conditions? To all these Marx drew attention and indicated the way to a scientific study of history as a single process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is governed by definite laws.1

This materialistic approach forms the foundation of my writing, and helps to guide me when approaching new areas of research. Nevertheless, I’m still hardly confident in my writing abilities. This lack of confidence can sometimes get me in a trap of reading excessively in order to avoid writing, but the majority of the time it’s best to just get your thoughts down on paper, no matter how rubbish you think they are. I’m also prone to using uncertain language like ‘perhaps,’ ‘could,’ and ‘possibly’ far more than I should. This sort of language can indicate a lack of conviction in the ideas you are sharing, so when I’m finished writing I sometimes do a ‘find and replace’ to cut them out.

I feel that a central principle of my writing is to be direct and clear. This is often for my own benefit; when I find something complex or have difficulty understanding something, I spend time breaking it down to something more digestible, and something that I would feel comfortable explaining to others. This makes me feel more confident in my own knowledge and sure that what I am writing has solid foundations. I find that often, complex language can be used as a distraction to shield unsound ideas. But also, I hope that clarity in my writing will make my work more accessible to a broader audience, beyond simply circulating within an academic bubble.

In terms of the more practical techniques for writing, I usually simply write down a short structure for what I’m about to write (it doesn’t matter if this is later shifted around) which I find helps to motivate me. Often, I will organise my notes from readings thematically, so later when I’m writing on a topic I can easily find what I’m looking for. When I go over these notes, I’ll ‘strikethrough’ sections I’ve covered in my main writing, but never delete them. There’s nothing worse than losing track of that one quote that would’ve fitted perfectly. I also use Evernote to organise journal articles and other texts, which I feel I’d be lost without during this PhD.

Finally, why do I write? I’m drawn to history because it helps me to understand the conditions of the present day. And as the old saying goes, ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.’ However, I’d argue that a lot of popular history is ideologically skewed, focusing on the triumphs of great men, celebration of nationalistic tradition, and even pushing complete myths. How can we learn from history or change the future when our popular perception of the past is distorted and restricted? I write because I want to, in my own small way, contribute to challenging this dominant narrative, and in turn, enhancing how we study and share history.