How historian Martha Jones writes

Martha Jones of the Johns Hopkins University is Rachel Toor‘s latest interview in her “Scholars Talk Writing” series.

Here is a taste of Toor’s interview with Jones:

Advice about writing?

Jones: Write. Revise. Repeat. In my early career, I mistook speaking for the core of a scholar’s life. Along the way, good mentors kindly chided me for all the words sitting on my hard drive, where they benefited no one at all. My mentors emphasized that the key to changing the debate was putting pen to paper, and then publishing those ideas.

This is certainly true for humanists. I spent 2013-14 as a fellow at the National Humanities Center, where, for the first time in my career, I spent eight straight months at a desk, writing five days a week. That discipline changed me as a writer: I lost my reluctance and fear, and I’ve not looked back.

My advice? Write that which you need to say; you will always be satisfied. Publish for those who need to hear your thoughts; they will read you. Stay close to what truly matters to you; your passion will drive your prose. Honor your own voice, always.

Write. Revise. And then let it go.

Read the entire interview here.

Episode 71: Writing History for Young Readers

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Have you ever wanted to write a children’s, middle-grade, or young adult history book? How do you get started? What is the process like? Do I need an agent? In this episode, we talk about writing history for young readers with former Smithsonian educator and author Tim Grove. Tim is the author, most recently, of Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem. Learn more about his work at TimGrove.Net.

Listen here.

Alan Jacobs Does Not Like Twitter Threads

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Something to think about.  Here is Jacobs:

It’s a terrible experience first for the writer and then for the reader. Thread Reader is meant to make things less miserable for readers, and to some degree it accomplishes that, but whenever someone sends me a thread — I would never choose to look at one — you know what I inevitably think? Lordy, this is badly written. See, Thread Reader can’t do anything to reverse the damage the 280-character limit inflicts on a person’s writing: such writing is invariably choppy, imprecise, abstract, syntactically naïve or incompetent, lacking in appropriate transitions — a total mess in every respect. (Some of this happens because the writers get distracted by comments that start coming in before they’ve finished the thread, but an undistracted threader is still a poor writer.)

Read his entire post at his blog, Snakes and Ladders.

Writing as “Serving the Work”

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I am a first-generation writer. My mother and grandmothers kept diaries, but none of them wrote anything with the express purpose of having it read by someone outside the family. I had a few good teachers who encouraged my writing, and I had a few teachers and professors over the years who told me that I needed to become a better writer. In the end, I learned how to write, and continue to learn how to write, by writing.

I have been grading the papers of college students for more than two decades, but this was the first semester in which I actually taught a first-year college writing course. (See my posts on this semester’s Created and Called for Community course). I have done a lot of writing over the years, but going into this semester I was nervous about teaching students how to write. Thankfully, Messiah College offered some training and resources to help me in this endeavor.

This semester I spent time working with my students on their thesis statements, footnotes, bibliographies, and rough drafts. We devoted entire class periods to writing.  I encouraged peer review. I wrote endless marginal comments. I think I did everything I was supposed to do.

But in the end, some students still struggle with writing clear and concise prose. They still get basic punctuation wrong. They write in passive voice. Run-on sentences abound. Some of these students have improved over the semester. Others have not.

I just finished reading the rough drafts of their final paper. Many of them are in great shape. These are a joy to read. But other papers have left me frustrated. Somewhere along the way, my students have come to think that in order to get a good grade on a paper they need to merely respond to every marginal comment I write or awkward sentence I identify. But I can’t line-edit every paper. I can’t offer sentence-by-sentence revisions. So when they do not get the grade they wanted, they send me an e-mail complaining: “I don’t understand why I got such a low grade (usually a “B” or “B+”). I did everything you told me to do in the rough draft.” In other words, “I jumped through the hoops you set out for me. Now why didn’t I get an A?”

But writing is not that simple. Granted, it comes easy for some people. But for others, like me, it takes work. It requires rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, and rewriting and editing again and again until a sentence or a paragraph shines. It is like polishing a stone or sanding a piece of wood–elbow grease is necessary. We can give students all kinds of writing wheels, manuals, lectures, videos, exercises, and extra help, but how do we teach students to embrace the grind?

Earlier this semester, we read a wonderful essay by Dorothy Sayers titled “Why Work? Here is Sayers:

…the worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it.  It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God and your neighbor; on those who commandments hand all the Law and the Prophets…

There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work. There are three good reasons for this:

The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it–any more than you can make a good drive from the tee if you take your eye off the ball…If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good–and work that is not good, serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon. 

The second reasons is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community…But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and give nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.

And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand–and you may not even do that. A public demand is a changeable thing. Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in theaters owe their badness to the fact that the playwright has aimed at pleasing the audience, instead of at producing a good and satisfactory play. Instead of doing the work as its own integrity demands that is should be done, he has falsified the play by putting in this or that which he thinks will appeal to the groundlings…and the play fails by its insincerity. The work has been falsified to please the public, and in the end even the public is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with all work.

What might it mean for young writers to “serve the work?” I tell my students that their work at becoming better writers will one day benefit the communities they hope to serve. Do they believe me?  Some do. But others grow impatient. They just want to be told how to get a good grade and move on to the more “important” classes in their majors.

But there has been a lesson here for me as well. Over the course of the semester I have tried to have more patience with my students. I have taken more time than usual with their papers. I am learning to serve the work.

How Future Historians Might Use Your Quarantine Diary

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A couple weeks ago I encouraged everyone to keep a coronavirus diary.  Read that post here.

Over at The New York Times, Amelia Nierenberg reports on the diaries and journals that “tell the story of an anxious, claustrophobic world on pause.”  Here is a taste:

When future historians look to write the story of life during coronavirus, these first-person accounts may prove useful.

“Diaries and correspondences are a gold standard,” said Jane Kamensky, a professor of American History at Harvard University and the faculty director of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute. “They’re among the best evidence we have of people’s inner worlds.”

History isn’t usually told by the bigwigs of the era, even if they are some of its main characters. Instead, it is often reconstructed from snapshots of ordinary lives. A handwritten recipe. A letter written by a soldier at the front. A drawing of a kitchen sink. One of the most famous works of academic history — “A Midwife’s Tale,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich — came from the diary kept by a woman living in Maine from 1785 to 1812. It won a Pulitzer Prize.

The personal that is presented in diaries gives us the truth of the era,” said Carole Ione Lewis, a diarist and the author of “Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color,” which she wrote using her relatives’ diaries.

Today’s journals convey the shared experience of life in isolation.

Some diarists record statistics: the number of infections, the number of deaths. Others keep diaries that are part shopping list, part doodle pad. Unidentified phone numbers are scratched out in the margins of punctuation-less pages filled with the frustration of being separated from family and friends. Among these accounts, anxiety is the constant.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Simple Ways First-Year College Students Can Improve Their Writing

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This week I graded sixty-eight 750-word analytical essays that students wrote in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.  Student essays responded to this prompt:

Write a paper responding to one of the readings on education (by Stanley Hauerwas or John Henry Newman or Ernest Boyer). Choose one point / claim / argument in the reading you choose, and respond to it using the one of the following invention processes: agree-disagree or define by qualifying or amplifying a point.

Since this is a designated writing course, I spend more time with each essay than I would in an average history course. After I returned the papers to the students on Friday, I took a few minutes to address some common mistakes:

  • Read the paper aloud. If a sentence sounds awkward to the ear consider rewriting it.  Even better, read the paper to someone else.
  • The real work of writing begins on the second or third draft.
  • Active voice
  • When a sentence ends with a quote, the period goes inside the quotation marks.
  • If a sentence is longer than three lines it is probably too long.  There is nothing wrong with short sentences.
  • Avoid phrases like “I believe” or “I feel.”  Just say it. For example, some students write:  “I really feel Ernest Boyer is right about community and I truly believe we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.” Just say “Ernest Boyer is right about community and we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.”
  • Don’t put too much bibliographical information in a sentence.  Avoid sentences like this: “Ernest Boyer, on page 17, paragraph 7 of the CCC Reader edited by Jim LaGrand, says….” This is why we have citations.
  • After the instructor returns a paper the student should read everything he or she writes on it.  If a professor puts a lot of red ink on a paper it is because he or she wants to help the student become a better writer.

On Teaching Writing, Christian Thinking, and Meaning-Making

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As many of you know, this semester I am teaching three sections of a Messiah College course called Created and Called for Community (CCC).  This is a required course for first-year Messiah students. They take it in the second semester at the college.

CCC has three main goals:

  1. It serves as one of two first-year writing courses required of all Messiah College students.
  2. It introduces students to Christian higher education and how Messiah College approaches the task of Christian higher education. This is a course on Christian thinking.
  3. It teaches students how to read and engage texts.  We challenge students to “make meaning”out of these texts through close reading and conversation.

On Monday, we spent the entire class period preparing students for the 500-750 word analytical essay they will submit at the end of the week.  The essay will engage a class reading on Christian education.  Students have three choices here: Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Go With God,” Ernest Boyer’s “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College,” and John Henry Newman’s “What is a University?”  Once students pick an article, they will narrow their focus to one central claim or argument and build an essay around it.  They will either write an “agree or disagree” essay or an “amplification” essay.

As I talked to the students about how to compose this essay, I warned them about separating the logistics of writing (thesis statements, summarizing, arguing, opening paragraphs, conclusions) from the other two stated goals of CCC.  Many first-year students don’t naturally make the connection between writing and thinking. They also don’t see writing as a spiritual discipline–a way of worshiping God with their minds.

We talked a lot about how to write in a nuanced, complex, and humble way.  First-year college students have opinions, but those opinions are not fully formed.  They are in no position to “agree” or “disagree” at any deep level with people like Stanley Hauerwas, Ernest Boyer, or John Henry Newman.  This should not stop them from trying, but such writing must remain humble.  I hope I did not offend students when I told them that they are not (yet?) as smart as Hauerwas, Boyer, and Newman.  Neither do they know as much about the subject of Christian education as these esteemed writers.  If they disagree with the central premise of one of these articles, they still must write as if these authors can teach them something about how to think Christianly about their college experience.  If students can develop this kind of nuanced and complex writing, and translate it to the way they engage the world, we may well be on our way to avoiding the kind of polarizing public discourse we find in the country today.

On Wednesday we are reading Boyer’s essay on Messiah College. Follow the class here.

George Packer on the Courage and Loneliness of Writing

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The Atlantic is running a version of George Packer‘s Hitchens Prize acceptance speech.   The Hitchens Prize is awarded annually by the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation to an author or a journalist whose work, in the spirit of the late Christopher Hitchens, “reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.”

Packer argues that “belonging” can be an enemy of writing:

I know it sounds perverse to count belonging as an enemy of writing. After all, it’s a famously lonely life—the work only gets done in comfortless isolation, face-to-face with yourself—and the life is made tolerable and meaningful by a sense of connection with other people. And it can be immensely helpful to have models and mentors, especially for a young person who sets out from a place where being a writer might be unthinkable. But this solidarity isn’t what I mean by belonging. I mean that writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The group might be a political faction, an ethnicity or a sexuality, a literary clique. The answer makes reading a lot simpler. It tells us what to expect from the writer’s work, and even what to think of it. Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.

Politicians and activists are representatives. Writers are individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another. They don’t write as anyone beyond themselves. But today, writers have every incentive to do their work as easily identifiable, fully paid-up members of a community. Belonging is numerically codified by social media, with its likes, retweets, friends, and followers. Writers learn to avoid expressing thoughts or associating with undesirables that might be controversial with the group and hurt their numbers. In the most successful cases, the cultivation of followers becomes an end in itself and takes the place of actual writing.

As for the notion of standing on your own, it’s no longer considered honorable or desirable. It makes you suspect, if not ridiculous. If you haven’t got a community behind you, vouching for you, cheering you on, mobbing your adversaries and slaying them, then who are you? A mere detached sliver of a writing self, always vulnerable to being punished for your independence by one group or another, or, even worse, ignored.

I have mixed feelings about Packer’s thoughts on “belonging.”  Does a completely independent writer exist?  Don’t we all write out of membership in some kind of community–real or imagined? Aren’t all writers shaped by a communion of thinkers–past and present, dead and alive?  Is there anything new under the sun?

On the other hand, my favorite writers are those who are unpredictable and cannot be placed easily into an ideological box.

Packer also argues that writers cannot give in to fear:

Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Tips for Public Writing

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Are you an academic who wants to write for the public?  If so, check out Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s helpful Chronicle of Higher Education piece “You Want to Write for the Public, but About What?”  It includes wisdom from historians Kelly Baker, Kevin Kruse, and Sarah Bond.

Here is a taste:

Kelly J. Baker, a former faculty member in religious studies and now editor of the newsletter Women in Higher Education, fields a lot of unsuccessful pitches from academics new to public writing. One of the most common mistakes they make, she said, is a failure to move beyond their scholarship: “Their pitch is too specific to their discipline. They rely on too much jargon or write a pitch that would be a better fit for an academic journal rather than a magazine.” (Baker offers further advice on this in her blog post on writing for nonacademic readers.)

To succeed in public writing, then, you have to take that brave first step beyond the small but safe territory of your scholarly expertise. Use your academic training as a foundation and then do the additional research and reporting necessary to write a journalistic piece. I used current events as the driving force of my freelance writing, and my expertise followed.

Read the entire piece here.

I recently wrote about my own experience with public writing.

Writing for the Public in “Perilous Times”

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Recently the editors of The Panorama, an online magazine published by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the Journal of the Early Republic, asked me to compose a short piece on public writing.  The piece was published today under the title “Sometimes Writing History for the Public Means Forgetting Everything You Learned About Writing in Graduate School.

A taste:

Public writing is not for the faint of heart. The comments sections of online platforms are some of the darkest places on the internet. The discourse occurring every day on Twitter may be one of the strongest arguments for the Christian doctrine of original sin. But if we are serious about challenging citizens to think more deeply about the links between past and present, it is a cross that we must bear with courage.

Read the entire piece here.

Getting Writing Done With a 4/4 Load

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Some helpful thoughts here from Deborah Cohan, a sociologist at the University of South Carolina Beaufort:

One of my beloved colleagues with whom I exchange a lot of office banter often quips, “Gosh, Deb, do you ever sleep? Are you ever not writing?” Another dear friend tells me, “You’re like a publishing machine.”

It was not always this way. For too many years, I was cobbling together contingency employment across state lines, zigzagging all over Massachusetts and Connecticut seeking an elusive tenure-track position. People encouraged me to write and publish as much as I could in order to have a better chance on the job market.

But the truth is, you do the best you can when you are just trying to survive, landing visiting gigs and trying to get settled in a new place while already applying for a job for the next year to ensure you can feed yourself, pay your rent and utilities, repay student loans, get some health care, and keep your CV looking like it is in forward motion. Gap years are highly recommended for students after high school, but they look treacherous on a CV of someone with a doctorate.

So I really couldn’t get into much of a writing routine until I landed my current job. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, writing is not at the foundation. That said, fast-forward and I now see my writing life as, in fact, foundational — a measure of how well life is flowing and feeling.

I have learned some things along the way that have helped me write more regularly and publish with greater frequency, even on a 4/4 load with over 110 students in a semester, summer teaching and no teaching or research assistants or dedicated administrative assistance. I want to pass along my hard-won lessons to you.

No. 1: Let go of the tyranny of perfectionism. All my life I’ve been plagued by this. There are ways it served me well, but when it comes to regularly getting work out, it is detrimental. Perfectionism is not just a thief of the present and the future; it is also a thief of creativity. It keeps us stuck.

Getting our work out there means we are vulnerable. We may change our minds, our data, and our perceptions of concepts and trends may shift and evolve over time, and we need to be OK with letting our work go even as it is in progress. All intellectual and creative thought — if it is indeed intellectual and creative — is shifting and evolving, and it is fine to write and publish and later be open to new ideas that subtly or profoundly alter our perspective. And if we wait for our ideas to feel so rock solid, so right (whatever that even means), they may actually lose some currency and become stale.

Read the rest at Inside Higher Ed.

Do You Want to Write for the Public?

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Are you an academic who wants to write for the public?  If so, you should take a look at Katie Rose Guest Pryal’Chronicle of Higher Education piece “10 Questions Every Academic Should Ask Before Writing for the Public.”  Here is a taste:

Here are 10 questions that every academic should ask before writing for the public.

No. 1: Who is my public? Chances are, you already write for “a public.” If you are a faculty member, you might write articles for journals or give talks at conferences. If you are an administrator, you might write reports for various stakeholders, including the general public. If you are a graduate student, you might already be presenting at conferences or publishing in journals.

But here we’ll talk about expanding your definition of “public,” understanding who that audience might be, and then making sure you know how to best write for your new readers.

For now, consider “the public” to mean this: educated people who read popular magazines and websites that you also like to read. What venues do you turn to for your daily commentary on world events, large and small? The readers of those venues compose your public audience. For now.

No. 2: Why do I want to do this? Some people start writing for popular publications because they think they’ll earn money. Some do it because their institution encourages public engagement. Others do it because they want to make sure their research is accessible to as many readers as possible. Whatever your motivations, you need to have a clear idea of what they are before you get started. Your reasons might change as you go along, and that’s fine.

Read the entire piece here.

Pultizer Prize-Winning Historian T.J. Stiles Talks Writing

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Stiles, who has won Pulitzers for his biographies of Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Custer, talks with Rachel Toor about writing.  Here is a taste of their conversation at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Can you talk about writing history as an independent scholar?

Stiles: Academic books earn not royalties but respect from one’s peers, leading to career advancement. That incentivizes the kind of work that wouldn’t be supported by the commercial book market — and a kind of writing that is aimed at colleagues.

Nonacademic readers should appreciate that, and academics should also understand why their professional, academic work — excellent though it may be — often is not absorbed by the world outside the university. You have to write for the audience you’re trying to reach. Many academic historians would like to find a larger readership, and I think there should be more training in narrative writing in graduate programs.

Working outside the academy, I can write narrative and strive for a literary style, unhampered by the demands of academic discourse. And I can pursue subjects that aren’t of current interest to the profession. (When I was working on Jesse James and Custer, I met a lot of skepticism from academic historians.) The commercial market can limit your topics; but if you can convince a publisher there’s an audience, you can write about whatever interests you.

Why narrative history?

Stiles: Narrative begins with the intent to make the reader want to keep reading. That requires plot. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge defines plot as raising questions in the mind of the reader and delaying the answers.

Academic writing usually lays out the questions and the answers at the outset, then proceeds to demonstrate. Again, that’s fine for its purpose. But it strands a reader alone, without the happy company of mystery and suspense, the crew who sail every plot forward.

Narrative generally centers on characters. Scholarship is concerned with the conditions of humans; literature is concerned with the human condition. Serious nonfiction narrative can be concerned with both, but it’s hard to pull off without individuals who have intentions, carry out actions, and face consequences.

There are other aspects of writing narrative, and of incorporating argument and interpretation, but we always begin with plot and character.

As to why, it’s that narrative is inherently part of the historical enterprise, thanks to the element of time. It’s one reason why many academic historians turn out to be very good writers. By centering on human beings, narrative adds a quality of understanding — a glimpse of the human condition, that central concern of literature. And history has always been considered a branch of literature. There’s no Pulitzer Prize for sociology, after all.

Read the entire interview here.

Stanley Hauerwas on Writing

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Time once named him “America’s Best Theologian.”  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanley Hauerwas talks writing with Rachel Toor.  Here is a taste of the interview:

What does it mean to write “interestingly”?

Hauerwas: Well, trying to help us recover what extraordinary and odd things we believe as Christians — things such as God is to be found in a Palestinian Jew. That is a conviction that calls into question the sentimentalities that are confused with Christianity in the world as we know it. When you take seriously what we believe as Christians, it puts a pressure on how you say what needs to be said. I think that is why some of the greatest theologians — people like John Henry Newman — were also some of the greatest writers of their time.

I still have occasion from time to time to have to read something I wrote in the past that is clear evidence that I did not know how to write. I’ve learned that I think by writing. There is just no substitute for writing over and over again.

I am still not happy with everything I write, but every once in a while I write a sentence I take pleasure in. I tell my graduate students that they must learn to write well, and the way that you learn is by doing. I want them to copy me. I often say I do not want students to make up their own minds. I want them to think like me as well as write like me — only differently. By that I mean they should care about what I care about, but what I care about should force them to find their own voice.

How did you develop as a writer?

Hauerwas: I am a reader. Perhaps undisciplined, but reading makes writing possible. Reading will not necessarily make you a good writer, but it cannot hurt. I’ve learn to write through imitation.

Genre also matters. In particular, I have the opportunity to preach occasionally, and sermons allow me to engage in a rhetoric that I like to think is eloquent. I publish sermons along with more-academic essays because I want to show how they are interrelated. Namely, I try to show how, if you believe that out of all the peoples of the world God chose Israel to be the promised people, you cannot help but write with a difference. That difference, I hope, reflects the glory that is God.

You are known for doing “narrative ethics.” Can you talk about that?

Hauerwas: I was in graduate school at Yale, training to be a Christian ethicist. Both philosophical and theological ethics was focused on decisions allegedly determined and justified by deontological or teleological systems. I was reading Aristotle, for whom the virtues were central. I was also influenced by Iris Murdoch’s claim that decisions are what you do when everything else has been lost. So I focused on character, which, as most novelists will tell you, is captured through a narrative. It is only through stories that we can make sense of the seemingly unrelated events that we call our lives.

I also began to think that practical reason is fundamentally about how we can narrate our lives. Such a narration draws on the contingent facts that make us who we are — I am a Texan. I am a Yalie. I am a Christian.

I was playing around with these ideas when Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue was published — and the rest is history. He made the intuitions with which I was working respectable. Alasdair is a great philosopher who claims me as a friend. I have learned much from him.

There is, of course, a theological side to all this. I believe Christianity is one hell of a story about the way things are, not least being that our very existence is a gift. That is the contingency rightly called “creation.” I was fortunate to have Hans Frei as a teacher. It was from Frei I learned to read Karl Barth, whose work can be read as one long story — long because the story has many subplots.

Your publishing output is astronomical. How do you get so much done?

Hauerwas: I was raised a bricklayer. All I have ever known is work. In my memoir, Hannah’s Child, I tried to describe what it means to come from working-class people and end up in the academy. We lack the manners and gestures of the classes — and it is a class matter — that dominate life in the university. I have been a teacher for over 45 years, which means, given my family background, I have never had to work for a living.

I have tried to do what I have been asked to do. I have written books, but most of my books are collections of essays written because someone asked me to write or lecture about this or that. I bring the essays together to give the impression that they constitute a book. I do not want to be too self-deprecating, because I think I do make some interesting and coherent arguments.

Read the entire interview and Toor’s introduction here.

A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Writing as Thinking

writers+practice+coverJohn Warner is the writer of two recent books on writing: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.  Over at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, Benjamin Murphy, a PhD candidate in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, interviewed Warner.  Here is a taste:

BJM: I want to hear more about the writer’s practice. Could you elaborate on a phrase that comes up in the books a lot. What does the phrase, “Writing as thinking” mean?

JW: To me, the base unit of writing is the idea. And actually, sometimes it’s not even an idea, maybe that’s too strong. It’s a notion—an idea in your brain and you think, this seems true, or this seems interesting. You start there. And the process of writing may reveal other ideas that link to that, or it may enhance that idea; or it may prove that the idea is faulty as far as you can tell. But when we start with an idea, we think through the implications. We follow the chain of thoughts, sometimes bound by logic, but sometimes bound by imagination or surprise. I may be writing on a topic and something from left field comes in and suddenly I see a relationship. I have this idea and I see what confirms or challenges it and head off in a new direction, arriving at the end with an altered idea. When students can do that, they develop a practice. Unfortunately, too much of schooling (as opposed to learning) involves students thinking they have to figure out everything they want to say before they start. In reality, writing is a process of discovery. Saying that “writing is thinking” honors discovery and that each of us has our own view of the world, that we are unique intelligences with unique things to say.

BJM: And I think that connects to another phrase that appears a lot. What do you mean by “reading like a writer”?

JW: Reading like a writer is, for me, the opposite of how many students have been trained to read. They’re accustomed to doing a narrow close reading. Not close reading in the analytical sense, but more like scanning to extract a nugget of information for an exam. That’s what reading often means: finding the pre-determined answer to perform understanding. It’s not a matter of what the text means for a student in particular or about what it might mean in a broad context; just about what information is in a passage according to some abstract state of mind. But reading like a writer considers not raw meaning so much as the creation of meaning—not only what a text means but how and why it means. My graduate degree is an MFA in creative writing, and this approach is built into my origins as a fiction writer. When I read something that blows me away, my first reaction is appreciation; my second reaction is to ask, “OK, how did the book do that?” And my third reaction is usually, “How can I steal that?”

Read the entire interview here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Power of Fiction

Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most influential public intellectual in America.  Jesmyn Ward, a pretty impressive writer in her own right, recently spent some time with him at the New York City coffee shop where Coates likes to write.  Coates has just completed his first novel: The Water Dancer.  Ward’s piece at Vanity Fair is an excellent read for what it reveals about Coates and what it reveals about the anxiety that another writer feels when interviewing a public intellectual of Coates’s stature.

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to do that work. Coates articulates this anxiety perfectly when he talks about the difference between the purpose of nonfiction and the purpose of fiction. Creative nonfiction, he thinks, “is not up to the task of humanizing. That’s not what it’s for.” He continues, “Also, I’ve got to tell you, you go to a very different place when you have to imagine a single person, versus write about mass. It’s not the same. I wonder, like, how you deal with the central tragedy and violence and darkness and horribleness that is happening, and the dehumanization without writing a work that itself dehumanizes.” He shakes his head. “My mom, actually, she can’t finish it”—The Water Dancer—“and… I actually feel like I intentionally held back. I feel like Hiram was very privileged in terms of being a slave.” He takes another bite of food. “How do I write about something, as horrible as it is, and not repeat the thing? You know what I’m saying?” And, he repeats, he has to resist the American legacy of myths. He has to resist the lure of the adventure story. He has to resist the lure of the cowboy. He has to resist the lure of the savior. It’s a hard thing to resist the great stories of your youth in an effort to discover new myths, new heroes, new legends that reveal a wider reality.

One of the things Coates must now do is figure out how to balance the two: how to write nonfiction and fiction, how to juggle his renown with his calling. “So many writers and so-called public intellectuals are driven by their desire for fame, celebrity, and money that this is practically all they see when they see someone like Ta-Nehisi. But he does what he does out of a deep sense of responsibility that has never changed,” says Jackson. “It’s a responsibility to his family—to his parents, his wife, his son. But also a sense of responsibility to black people. This is not to say that he fetishizes race or that he’s a nationalist. But that he knows that black people are keepers of a sacred tradition, not just of resistance, but artful, creative, generative, and generous resistance in the name of truth.”

Read the entire piece here.

Early American Historians on the Opinion Page

Yoni

Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Yesterday I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in a session at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic devoted to historical writing for popular venues.  The session was titled “Early America on the Opinion Page: Writing Historically-Minded Pieces for Contemporary Audiences.”  (Thanks to Caitlin Fitz of Northwestern University for organizing the event).

I was honored to sit on a roundtable with the following historians:

Jill Lepore (Harvard University and The New Yorker)

Yoni Appelbaum (Senior Editor at The Atlantic)

Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers University and National Book Award finalist)

Gautham Rao (American University)

Lepore, who chaired the session, asked each participant to send her the first few paragraphs of a recent op-ed piece.  She pasted these excerpts into a document and distributed it to the standing-room only crowd.   I chose a piece I wrote last year for The Atlantic. Each member of the roundtable took fifteen minutes to talk about the history behind the piece and offer insights into their own experiences with op-ed and other forms of public writing.

Many of the participants talked about the risks involved in writing for the public in a social media age.  Several of the panelists have received death threats for their public writing. I talked about the difficulty in bringing complexity and nuance to opinion pieces.  My favorite response came from Appelbaum, who encouraged the audience to find a community of friends and family who love and affirm their work in the midst of the inevitable criticism that comes when we write for the public. It was the first time I have ever heard the word “love” invoked in this way at a secular academic history conference.

Lepore and Rao had a really interesting exchange about book reviewing in popular venues.  Rao (a fellow Mets fan by the way!) lamented the fact that magazines and newspapers often choose non-academics or non-historians to review important history books.  Lepore disagreed.  She thought it was a very good idea that non-academics and non-historians reviewed these books because such reviewers are free from the politics of the academy and the historical profession.

Rao responded to the exchange on Twitter:

Lepore ended the session with some advice of her own:

1. “Drive Responsibly”:  Bring your best work and your deep commitment to civic responsibility to the public sphere.  If you don’t write well or make weak arguments you weaken all of our reputations as historians.

2. “Be brave, but don’t be shi..y”

3. “Delight your reader”

And then there was moment.

Inside the Mind of the Literary Editor

Writing

If you write books, Lauren Toor’s interview with literary agent Susan Rabiner is a must read.  They cover the art of making an argument, the practice of narrative history, and the topics that are “hot” right now in trade publishing.

Here is a taste:

Can you define what you mean by narrative?

Rabiner: Sure. You don’t create narrative by simply inserting lots of anecdotes, character portraits, or description. Those features are terrific but are not meant to stand on their own. They are part of a story that creates a kind of tension in the reader — a need to find out where the book is going and how it will add up.

And remember, the story doesn’t have to be a story about people. It can be the story of an idea — how and why we once believed something and now do not. It can be the story of an event that we have been interpreting one way but should be re-examining in a different light.

Read the entire interview here.