The Speed of Excellence II: A Thesis is a Well Considered Thing

So, here’s part two in my series about the differences in writing fiction and history. (you can read the first part here).

This section is mighty long, so bare with me. I’m trying to digest and reconstruct the many layered processes involved in historical scholarship. It make lack some Ridler zip, but I think it’s got a weighty point.

THE SPEED OF EXCELLENCE PART II: A THESIS IS A WELL CONSIDERED THING.

First off, like authors of fiction, historians write at different speeds. “Publish or perish” is the dread cry of most graduate students and post docs. Some can pump out steady books and articles of high quality (Niall Ferguson comes to mind, even if one disagrees with his arguments), while others make their mark with a few authoritative works that cannot be touched (Sir Michael Howard is a good example. Dude keeps writing thinner and thinner books after his landmark history of the Franco/Prussian War, and they are terrific, see The Invention of Peace, for example).  I had mentors in both camps. One was a damn-the-torpedoes writing machine. The other was a master of revisions and compression over the long haul. Both wrote compelling work and both taught me techniques for producing a major piece of scholarship.

The same arguments about high speed = mediocre work persists here, too. This is, in part, because the speed of production in history, as compared to fiction, will usually be slower. No matter how fast a historian writes, how much zest, gusto, or “machine gun enthusiasm” they have for the written word, their speed of production is complicated by the dual demands of research and analysis, which, along with writing, comprise the trinity of historical scholarship.  These two parts often have their own internal engines and speedometers. You can certainly “research” fast, and sometimes, if you’re only visiting an archive for a brief period, you do not have the luxury of endless months of leads to follow. Conversely, on some projects, you can also get swallowed up by research and abandon other pieces of the trinity.

You also must have a commanding knowledge of the field you’re studying. Not just some, or key works, or the latest controversial argument. Comprehensive appreciation of your field (i.e., other people’s work and ideas) is expected of a professional. That means reading deep from the literature of your subject so you know where you and your efforts fit: are you challenging orthodoxy or shining light where there has only been shadow?

(How funny that I think of Hemingway’s old saw about the only two reason to write fiction:  compete with the masters, or do something new. Moving on . . .)

Coinciding with research is analysis, the act of taking the raw data from research, considering it, and then reconstructing it within a narrative framework. This act takes place in the tactile and the psychological realms. All of the great historians I’ve  known share the joy of considering, challenging, and contrasting the data brought into their mind, generating the mental landscape of their work, as connections between events, ideas and people coalesce into a clearer picture that brings fresh insight. This process also occurs on the page. Sometimes it’s in the form of a dialog with one’s self about the data and its meaning and relations. Other times, it’s written in the form of small essay within a larger chapter. Sometimes it is just a brainstormed aside or point form notes, shelved until it can be tied to other pieces or left on its own.  Other variations abound.

And analysis, too, has its own speed. I always hate it when, upon reflection, a key insight has been staring me right in the face for days. It often happens when you’re hunting for a very specific answer to a very specific question, and, lo, there on the margins, is an answer to another question. Sometimes it’s trivial, sometimes it’s significant. But it’s often in these margins that deeper meaning arrives. What speeds these things along is not just enthusiasm, but immersion. The richer your reading, the deeper your thoughts, and the more connections that you can make, the more the answers come forward in your mind’s eye.

Granted, if you take too long in research or analysis, you end up down the rabbit hole. There’s an old saying: “Give an actor a week to learn their lines, it will take a week. Give them an hour, it will take an hour.” Historians, like authors of fiction, must telegraph between the bottomless well of research and analysis and the definite conclusion embodied within a manuscript, all the while knowing that someday, a piece of evidence or new approach might slice through their work like a bayonet in a piglet’s belly. I don’t know if you can “disprove” a novel. But you can disprove a work of historical scholarship, which is rooted, whether I like it or not, within the pedagogical world of argument and rhetoric as much as the recovery of the past.

I know some authors of fiction do lots of research. Lots of drafts. Lots of thinking and rethinking about their work. But I doubt many do as much as historians, who struggle with the empirical demands that writers of fiction can ignore. Perhaps historians must also have this rigor because they are als, much more so than writers, vying with colleagues, competitors, and downright enemies within their own profession for jobs, scholarships, placement in programs, tenure track positions, as well as standing within the scholarship itself. One of my mentors informed me, “Mr. Ridler, whether you like it or not, and whether you ask for it or not, you will have enemies simply because you have an opinion. Make sure your opinions are well founded.”

As I’ve indicated, this trinity of research, analysis, and writing are not done in isolation, or phases that one completes before beginning another. They occur simultaneously, though one tends to be in the driver seat for a while before it gets sidetracked by the other two. Often, it is “writing” that has to fight hardest to get the wheel. You can always get one more book read or one more trip to the archive done, but it’s harder to slow your mind down and begin the first steps of constructing a narrative from all that you’ve amassed, knowing full well you’ll be getting it wrong the first time and then cutting a paragraph here, adding a quote there, shoring up the contextual resonance here, etc.

It took me about six years of fairly constant research and writing to produce a 340 page biography, but it’s hard to gauge it just in terms of years to pages. Every day for six years I dedicated a large part of my brain and time to the thesis. This involved great volumes of reading, archival research (in Canada and the UK), conducting interviews, writing summations of taped interviews (which nearly crippled my goddamn arm), giving lectures in graduate classes on my subject, and taking tutorials on my fields of expertise (all related to my work, with the exception of one of my minors, war and literature, which was related to my other vocation of fiction). This, on top of teaching (both in class and online), working at a bookstore, freelance writing for the local paper, meant that I was immersed. Immersed in my work, and all things related to it, with the exception of fiction and a damn limited social life.

That immersion was necessary to create in my mind the mental landscape required for analysis and writing. But, unlike fiction, analysis and writing of history was not something I could just “belt” out and create great work. The first draft of my thesis taught me that.  The best parts were the ones that I had taken care with, honed and added color to cold facts, gave the breath of life to the narrative. And those parts, the best parts, did not arrive in a haze of writing. They moved at a much, much slower pace. Some of that was the nature of the components. As noted,  research and analysis take time, as does first and last drafts. I might be able to write a short story in a week, but when I tried attempting the same speed with a essay or part of a chapter, the results were messy, the logic flawed, and I ended up ticked off. No matter how good your “flow”, you better not forget to get the footnotes right. And all footnotes stop the action dead, then you have to start up the engine again.

Unlike many of my stories, I found massive revision to be an aid with my thesis. I hope, like all authors, to cut closer to the last draft the first time I write. But I found that, with all the pieces I was pulling from, drafts, outlining, brainstorming, and not just “writing by the headlights,” which I often do in fiction, created a stronger work.

I also found I enjoyed the more “considered” pace (so long as a deadline wasn’t looming) compared to my fiction. I ended up with work that had some heft and wasn’t just a breathless regurgitation of the facts, but still had the zip of my enthusiasm. It’s a tricky balance, being a frantic mind who loves comprehension, but these are the mental gymnastics of scholarship one must practice, consider, and hone to be successful, to improve, and to grow.

For me, history would be a weighty, slower process, but with a richness of consideration. My short stories would be furious, heartfelt, and free of the constraints of fact or footnotes. Having both options helped immensely for my mind. If I was exhausted with one, I found solace in the other . . .

. . . until I started writing novels, and a new historical project, and my need for speed led to mountains of useless friction.

NEXT TIME! PART III!!!

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About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jason.ridler.56
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