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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

How writing leads to thinking (and not the other way around)

The Art of History is a new series of articles by senior scholars who are willing to share their thoughts on, and offer advice about, some aspect of the art and craft of historical research and writing, drawing upon their own experiences in particular. The series began with Caroline Walker Bynum’s article "Teaching Scholarship".

Writing is stressful. Sitting in my computer chair my neck and shoulder muscles almost immediately tense up as I dig around in my brain for the best phrase or even any coherent string of words, whether I am writing an essay like this one, a book chapter, a letter of recommendation, or an email message to a friend. Writing is time-consuming. It’s a great way to pass the time on a long airplane flight because you lose track of the passage of time altogether. It’s even better, from that point of view exclusively, than watching an episode of Mad Men on your laptop. Writing means many different things to me but one thing it is not: writing is not the transcription of thoughts already consciously present in my mind. Writing is a magical and mysterious process that makes it possible to think differently.

Because writing is an act that is far from completely accessible to our conscious minds, recommendations about how to write history may well be irrelevant. And yet they are not useless, if they can make writing seem less like scaling a Himalayan peak after having spent a lifetime as a couch potato. I know that is how I felt when I confronted the task of writing my dissertation. Doing research seemed so much easier, even those days in French archives when the archivist seemed not to comprehend a word I was saying, or those nights when I lay awake wondering which two French cities of 1789 I should compare out of what seemed an endless array of choices. Notecards with city names—Amiens, Blois, Caen, Dieppe and so on—turned over in my dreams, which is an awful waste of dreamscapes. But no, there is nothing quite like the terror of the blank page or the empty computer screen in front of you.

Lynn Hunt

Read more (courtesy The Art of History)

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