Creative writing manuals agree that great writing comes from vulnerability, and conviction.
Why should history be the exception?
This vulnerability does not have to be explicitly autobiographical, although it can be. In her book The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing, Jennifer Sinor connects her own experience of keeping a diary with her struggle to make sense of the diaries of her great-aunt. Sinor is like a bridge across time for the reader: by connecting her own writing and life with this diarist who died long before she was born, she makes her great-aunt’s daily frustrations, pain, and joy more real.
At a price.
Her book involves revisiting her own personal traumas in a way few historians have dared. But consider the conviction that comes from this vulnerability. Sinor writes persuasively about how the diary as a genre has been misunderstood, and reshaped to match literary criteria rather than allowed to speak on its own terms of everyday rhythms.
Historians are rarely as explicit about how they put themselves at stake in their writing. They appear in introductions and footnotes, speaking directly to readers, but rarely put themselves into their books as part of the explicit subject.
This does not mean they are not putting themselves at stake. Consider the historian Carlo Ginzburg, who has spent his career writing about early-modern witchcraft in a range of books that have often challenged historical conventions, but are not ‘about’ him.
Or are they?
In a recent collection, Ginzburg discusses how he had not consciously made the connection between his own Jewish and anti-fascist upbringing and his interest in the persecution of outsiders and scape-goats in the early modern period.
Perhaps it does not matter if a historian is aware of the roots of their passion for their subject. What matters is the absolute conviction that what they are writing is important. But thinking about your own investment in your topic is the high road to this kind of conviction.
A high road, but a dangerous one. Even if historians do not just to put an autobiographical self at stake in their writing, they can still experiment with intellectual jeopardy. What does it feel like to try to understand the opposite position to the one you consciously hold? The writer John Yorke argues that in a good story ‘whatever you believe should be tested to destruction.’ Vulnerability can be intellectual, too.
And there are ways to quite literally put yourself at risk. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport tells the story of how J.K. Rowling hit a stumbling block with the final books in the Harry Potter series. Realizing she was being distracted at home, she took the decision to book herself into one of the most expensive hotels in central Edinburgh to restart her writing. After staying a few days, she realized that the expensive and extravagant commitment was forcing her to do the work she needed to do. This is what Cal Newport calls making a ‘grand gesture’. It’s an instant way to raise the stakes.
But it is also a reminder that discussions of vulnerability are often entwined with assumptions about privilege. How many people can afford to stay in a luxury hotel until their book is finished? For many people, risk is not a choice, but a necessity. You may not be in a position to put yourself at risk in your writing: the risks in your life may be too great.
If you are able to embrace jeopardy, it is important to remember that vulnerability is not a weekend-getaway to visit when it is convenient to our writing. Do not be a tourist to a disaster zone. Be a reporter from the breaking stories on your intellectual doorstep.
- Have a conversation with a friend or family member you trust deeply about why you are fascinated by your topic.
- It’s good to follow this activity up by recording some thoughts afterwards.
- This is an ongoing process, so you should revisit your conversation with your friend, or continue to write about your personal investment in your topic.
- Make a grand gesture.
- It doesn’t have to be as expensive as J.L. Rowling’s hotel stay, but Newport recommends making a public commitment, something that it will be hard to go back on. This can be as simple as telling people: ‘I am writing a book about X, which I hope to finish by July’. Or try committing to submit an article, a chapter, or a contribution of some kind. Promise things to yourself and others, and mean it.
- Write an outline for a piece on something you are working on that expresses the opposite of what you think.
- Reflect on this process. Are there actually any things you can use from this? Do phrases and ideas remain with you?
 Ginzburg Threads and Traces, p.218.
 Yorke, Into the Woods, p.191.
 Newport, Deep Work pp.122-3.