History as Creative Writing


James Goodman is Professor of History at Rutgers University. He is the U.S. editor of Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice.

A couple of years ago, not long after I signed on as U.S. editor of Rethinking History, I penned a called for contributions for a series of themed issues.  I called those issues “History as Creative Writing,” but not without some hesitation, even reluctance.  I knew those words would strike some readers as tired (another revival of narrative?), or pretentious (another literary turn?) or just plain meaningless.  But I meant something modest, something that made a certain amount of plain sense.  By creative writing I mean history written by writers who, whether composing the most complex theory or the simplest narrative, are attentive to the ways that form and style shape substance, content, and meaning.  Creative writers are those who take their writing seriously enough, as writing, to try to figure out what form of writing will allow them to best express whatever it is that they want to tell.  If that’s pretentious, I figured I might as well make the most it.

I imagined submissions that showed signs not just of the scholar’s struggle with evidence or the existing literature, but also the writer’s struggle with language and form.   I imagined that that struggle might lead to some unusual structure, or plot, or voice, or point of view, or some uncommon (for academic history) use of metaphor, imagery, or rhythm. 

I imagined that some writers might try to strike some unusual balance between showing and telling, revealing and withholding, answering questions and leaving questions for readers to try to answer.

I imagined some might try to complicate conventional chronology, shaking up beginnings, middles and ends. 

I expected that the struggle would push some writers of narrative or interpretation or theory (or some hybrid of two or more) to the outer limits of the universe of non-fiction writing—or out of that universe altogether.  I made it clear, in my call, that I would be thrilled if, in the name of historical understanding, a writer submitted some poems, a portion of a memoir, or a scene from a play.  I neglected to mention visual forms, but happily my readers have taken it for granted that I welcome innovation that extends beyond the limits of my own imagination.

I hoped to encourage creative historical writing by providing a space for it.  We learn to write by reading, and then imitating, by borrowing and stealing; the history of every form of literature is the history of writers learning from, building upon, taking on, revising, upsetting, even overturning the work of others.  The more creative writing that is out there – providing models, sparking constructive criticism, prompting people to think:  ”Maybe I could take this research, or that interpretation, and do something with the analysis or the narrative that I never thought of doing before” – the more creative historical writing there is going to be. 

The writing that’s out there does not all have to be completely successful.  It doesn’t even have to be complete.  We can learn from missteps, half steps, stumbles, and even serious falls.  You’ll see, because I plan to publish them all.  Although I can’t speak for my co-editors, let alone my referees, to please me, writers simply have to have the nerve to try, and then the nerve (and it can take a lot of it) to let go of it, to share.  The more that’s out there, the more that there is going to be.

What I call creative historical writing, Alun Munslow and Robert Rosenstone, Rethinking History’s founding editors, often call experimental historical writing, and longtime readers will know that they’ve been committed to publishing it--committed to rethinking the practice of history as well as the theory--from the first.  Craig Harlan shared that commitment during his tenure as U.S. editor.  In 2004, Muslow and Rosenstone edited a volume of pieces from the journal’s first seven years, Experiments in Rethinking History, and they have continued to publish innovative pieces in volumes since.

Yet even in a journal devoted to rethinking, the default among academic historians is always going to be traditional forms.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; in every art and science the balance tends to tip towards what has been done, and what has seemed to work before.  There are plenty of instances when the traditional form is the right form, instances when what has worked works once more.  The trouble is when traditional forms are not just the default but the only imaginable forms, the only possible forms, and the only publishable forms.  In any event, editors who want to publish serious offbeat writing are going to have to go out and get it, to beat the bushes, shakes the trees, troll with a very fine net, encourage, cajole.  And (because I can’t imagine any other reason) I have to believe that Munslow and Rosenstone turned to me to do just that, to ensure that as the years passed the “practice” in their journal’s project didn’t go by the wayside. 

The latest issue contains the first fruits of my efforts, and if the submissions keep coming in at the rate they are coming in now, there will be several years of sequels.  I’ve gathered a sheath of letters from a young historian to a senior colleague, seven responses to those letters, a meditation, a bit of advice to historians from science fiction writers, several short historical scenes and stories, and a couple of hybrids I admire but don’t even know how to name.  I am tremendously grateful to all of my contributors for their time and commitment to their writing as writing, grateful for their good humor in the face of the journal’s long backlog, and grateful for their patience and forbearance in working with a new and completely inexperienced editor.  I am equally grateful to Harlan, Munslow, and Rosenstone, first for inviting me to join them, then for patiently showing me the ropes, and last but hardly least for so cheerfully suffering my obsessions.

If you are inspired to contribute, or know someone, in any field, who might like to try her hand at writing something she hasn’t tried before, or who is quietly at work on something that she has not heretofore ever imagined publishing, I strongly encourage inquiries and submissions.  I will publish writers at any stage in their careers, but I am especially eager to publish young writers whose desire to strike out in literary directions might be tempered by their need to publish, early and often.  Attention to style and form, writing as writing, takes most mortals much time.  And as graduate students and junior faculty we are not allowed to deduct the extra time it takes us from the time we are expected to spend doing research in the archives or mastering the literature in our field.  Even if creative historical writing were widely accepted as a legitimate academic practice, and there were a place for it, even a small place, in every journal, there would still be less of it than of traditional historical writing.  Less still if young historians must take the extra time it takes without any confidence that they are going to be able publish their work.

Whatever your age or stage or field, if you are considering contributing to the journal, know that I am willing and even eager to work with you, not just as a referee-in-chief or a conduit to the publisher’s production people, but also as an editor.  Considering my abiding passion for writing as writing, and my acute sense of all the obstacles that stand in our way, that strikes me as an essential part of my job.

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Nubia Raygoza - 3/22/2010

Very interesting article. On face book via the Illinois Humanities Council fan page, I posted how history tends to be written on the side of the winner requiring the writer to steer important events and facts to suit the purpose of the work s/he is writing about and the message it wants to convey. I have been pondering on writing a book and reading this article may have been the push I needed. Thank you!