Plot and History

I want to talk about one mistake I think it is possible to make about the kinds of ‘creative’ approaches to writing history is that the #storypast group have discussed, and which will hopefully be addressed by the ‘Creative Histories’ event in Bristol in July 2017. This error is to think that talk of history as a form of creative writing only really matters to those of us who write a certain type of history, one focused on individual lives, small studies, microhistories and gripping lives.

Creative writing offers obvious tools here because such history is so close to the novel or the biography that we can reach out and hold hands.

Without wanting to claim that all historians must become (more) creative writers (I know, I know, the pressures are great enough already), I do think the tools of creative writing are more important to historical writing in general than the idea of the microstudy as creative nonfiction allows.

Take the example of plot, a key term of creative writing manuals and courses.

All historiography is an argument about plot.

What I mean is that given similar sources, even – in some cases – the very same information, historiographical debates, which proceed for all the world as if the questions they address are methodological, interpretational, or theoretical, are, at their basis, debates about how things happened, when, and why.

Is the story of the rise of the penitentiary system a heroic tale of humanitarianism triumphing over barbarism, or the invention of a very modern form of unfreedom? When, in fact, is the penitentiary born? Who will we put center stage in the story we tell of the birth of the prison? These are both empirical questions for research, and imply methodological and theoretical questions… but they also depend on strategies of emplotment.

The historian as writer turns her materials into a tragedy, or chooses a protagonist, who may or may not be a Great Man, who may or may not be human at all. The villain of Michel Foucault’s writing is ‘discipline’ itself. Discuss.

I do not mean to say that disagreements about sources, methods, interpretation, and theoretical perspectives are unimportant. Far from it. As an academic historian, this is where I devote much of my intellectual energy.

But as writers, it seems to me extremely important to notice that these debates are enacted in plots. While there is much that has been written theoretically about the importance of this realization for historians (see Hayden White… and the rest), where are the practical guides?

They exist for fiction writers, and perhaps historians are doomed to read those books. But perhaps we could also write (more of) our own books about the writing techniques specific to our craft.

How do you shape an analytical critique into a narrative alternative? How do historians say that other historians are wrong in a way that is positive, rather than negative? How do replace one story with another? Those – I believe – are technical, as well as philosophical questions.

One thought on “Plot and History

  1. I recall a specific example from the book “The Kingdom of Matthais” by Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilenz. One of the turning points in this account of a religious cult is when one of the female members seduces the male cult leader. However, as a professor whose course I took pointed out, what if it were really the leader seducing the member? The actual evidence is ambiguous, but which plot you choose shapes who you blame for the subsequent events.


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