Sam Wineburg on Writing

Anyone who has been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home, has been to one of my teacher seminars, or has taken a class with me at Messiah College, knows that I am a big fan of the work of Sam Wineburg.  

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Toor interviews Wineburg about his writing habits.  Toor mentions that Wineburg approached her for help in reaching popular audiences with his work.  What struck me the most about Wineburg’s request is that his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts has sold over 40,000 copies!  I would say that any book that sells 40,000 copies is reaching a public audience!  On the other hand, I am thrilled to learn Wineburg will be reaching even more readers in the future.  

Here is a taste of Toor’s interview:

Can you talk about your development as a writer?
Wineburg: My freshman tutor at Brown University was Steven Millhauser, then a doctoral student, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I arrived in Providence thinking I knew how to write. Millhauser put a quick end to that. To this day, one of his summary comments sits framed on my desk. A-minus was the grade, and his comment began, “A strong paper, carefully considered and forcefully argued.” But then came the line I’ll never forget: “The better you are, the more imperative it becomes to rid yourself of all the evidences of amateurishness, carelessness, and flawed education that your paper, good as it is, still reveals.” Mr. Millhauser — Mister is how we addressed him — taught me that the two most important tools a writer has are his ears. The most important things I learned about writing I learned during the first semester of my freshman year in college.
Over the years, I’ve had to learn to embrace my own voice. I had inklings of this understanding even as a high-school student, when I excelled at news writing for the school paper but felt less capable with human-interest stories. Experience has taught me to listen to my voice rather than trying to mimic others. It’s hard, because as humans we compare ourselves endlessly to others. We read terrific writing and say to ourselves, “Boy, I want to write like that.” And how I’ve tried, endlessly imitating voices that aren’t my own. Then, one day when reading a book by my favorite Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld, I came across these lines, “If there is meaning to the words of an author it is because he is true to himself, his voice, and his pace. His subject, his thesis are byproducts of his writing, not its essence.” These words sit framed on my desk as well.

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