All I have is a voice

So I am coming to the end of another summer of writing, the third focused primarily on the book. With little bit of luck, this will be the last, as I now have an at least somewhat definite deadline for submission of the full manuscript, although next summer is likely to be occupied with editing and incorporating reader comments.  Sadly, while I have emerged from the previous two summers energized and enthused by successes in completing chapters, I end this summer with far more mixed feelings, having spent a significant portion writing what I can only describe as the wrong chapter. That is, I got an idea of what I was supposed to be writing into my head, struggled to draft about 15,000 words, went back and reread what I had actually proposed and discovered it was something different – more complex and less linear, but potentially far more useful in the overall scheme of the book.  There are bits that can be salvaged from the previous version, and the rest will form the basis of a lecture I hope to be giving next spring. In the meantime, I have nearly finished drafting the correct version, a process I have found far easier and quicker than the original. This version is far more comfortable because I am writing in a way that suits me, not trying to take on the voice of a different type of historian and applying it to my research.

I have been thinking a lot about this question of the writer’s ‘voice’ this summer, in part because my period of focused writing has been bookended by events which have (or will) asked me to push myself out of my comfort zone as a writer.  The first was the final event in the Passions of War workshops which I have been attending for the past 2 years (for details of previous workshops, see posts here and here). In addition to hearing updates from participants on the research they had presented on at previous events, participants engaged in a guided fiction writing session, aimed at helping us free up the writing process and gives us skills and strategies for our academic writing practice.  The second is a story-telling workshop that I will be attending as part of the War Through Other Stuff workshop, being held at Leeds City Museum on 30th September.

Both of these events form part of a wider trend towards ‘creative histories’ which has been developing over the past few years.  This is the move towards exploring the variety of ways in which ‘educators, researchers, writers, artists, students, practitioners, and curators [bring] the past to life, [make] history compelling, and [have] fun’, to quote the call for papers from the summer’s Creative Histories conference.  The idea that the doing of history involves more than solely academic analysis or traditional exhibitions (a subject which has been raised in my own field in relation to the newly renovated National Army Museum, more of which in a moment) is undoubtedly to be welcomed.  But my experiences this summer have left me thinking that we need to make the case for more traditional analytic, even formal, histories as well.

One of the things that the fiction writing workshop reminded me was how uncomfortable the writing of fiction can be.  I say that as someone who started out as a writer of fiction (and weak adolescent poetry). For three summers during my school days, I attended that most American of institutions, an writing camp.  For two weeks each summer I took classes on poetry, short fiction, screen plays, learning how to create characters, set scenes, develop plot.  I wrote some very bad fiction, most of it thankfully long destroyed, but at the time I was quite convinced that I would, one day, be a writer of fiction.  I even thought that I might be able to make a living out of it.

What being asked to write fiction again reminded me was how constrained I have always felt by the process of scene and character creation. Far from inhabiting my imagined worlds and people, I have always needed to get it right – to be historically, or socially accurate, to get the slang correct, the details of the setting just so.  Developing a good story (or even a believable character) fell foul of this obsession with detail, a fear of the criticism that it was unauthentic, wrong.  I couldn’t, writing fiction, find that most elusive of qualities, my own writer’s voice.

I did eventually find it, however, in my final year of my undergraduate degree in the rather unexpected form of the dissertation, or long-form academic essay.  Since then I have honed and developed it, through two post-graduate theses, journal articles, book reviews and one (nearly two) complete monographs.  While there have been moments of doubt about the process (am I just stringing interesting/relevant quotations together/this is entirely and blindingly obvious/x, y and z have all said exactly this before), I have developed (and hopefully will continue to do so), my own style, my own perspective, my own contribution to understanding, my own ‘voice’.

As part of the process of learning the rules and limitations of the form I work in, I have also learned how to bend and subvert them, how far I can push the boundaries while maintaining my own authenticity, how this can be used to make my work engaging to a variety of audiences.  I am learning how to adapt my voice to different forms – discursive/reflexive essays (probably the form I aspire most to succeed in – Joan Didion has been a hero since school days), public lectures, academic seminars, scholarly monographs, someday, I hope, trade histories. This summer I have sought to push the boundaries of my own form in a peer-reviewed journal article that adapts reflexive practices and a book chapter for a collection that will be marketed to the Christmas trade as something of a novelty volume.  But within these experiments I try to remain true to the voice that I have come to through my academic writing and training, a voice shaped by analysis, historiographic considerations, and a belief in the value of proper citation and acknowledgement of intellectual debts (even if that does take the form of the despised footnote).

That locating and nurturing an individual voice is a significant part of the historian’s craft even in the most traditional forms of academic writing has been brought home to me by two museum events that I contributed to, the late opening of the Science Museum in July as part of their current Wounded exhibition, and the Masculinity Late event at the National Army Museum last night, part of their current season exploring gender and the military.  For both, I was asked to provide some sort of interactive session for museum visitors, although I had initially been asked to give a talk at the National Army Museum (the change was to make the event over all work more smoothly).  For both, I did the same thing, taking an article (one published, one currently under review) and deconstructing it into a series of quotations and images which I stuck to a wall and asked participants to respond to with their own thoughts.  Essentially, I took myself, my analysis, my voice out of the presentation of my work and then presented it to a non-specialist, if culturally engaged audience.

I came away from each event with very different feelings about the process.  The Science Museum experience was, for want of a better word, depressing.  While I had many interesting conversations, and felt my audience was engaged with the material presented, I was left wondering what the point of my labour was in the process.  Many of the responses I got were conditioned by dominant narratives around shell shock, which I found difficult to challenge in this format.  What then was the point of my research? It wouldn’t reach a wide audience in the format it was published in (a respected but slightly niche academic journal), but, in removing my voice from the format in presenting it to a wider audience, my ability to shape that narrative had dissipated. My voice was important; it needed to be there in some form.

By contrast, last night’s event at the NAM left me feeling far more energised and enthusiastic.  This may have been due to the fact that the audience was smaller, allowing me more opportunities to explain my perspective in some detail. It may have been due to the fact that the work presented hasn’t yet been published, leaving me more open to having my understanding shaped by the audience responses (there were also more of these in the form of post-it notes stuck to the wall by participants than there had been at the Science Museum, a reflection of the event being held in a more intimate space within the museum, allowing participants to feel safer in voicing their opinions, I think.) But I had also organised the display in ways that allowed me to demonstrate my ideas, my argument.  It was subtle, but it felt as if my voice was able to come through more clearly.

What last night demonstrated for me is that is possible for more traditional forms of history to be adapted to communicate with diverse audiences in ways that are both creative and yet recognise the authenticity of the original form.  This is the power of respecting one’s own authorial voice. Which may mean that, as fun and adventurous as writing fiction can be, it doesn’t need to be the approach taken by everyone. I will bear this in mind as I prepare to engage with storytelling at the end of the month.

The Village, Part 1

So I started watching The Village last night, Peter Moffat’s new drama about a northern rural village over the course of the twentieth century.  It began, when else, in the summer of 1914 (I am waiting for a course-of-the-twentieth-century drama that has the courage to begin with either the death of Victoria or the end of the Boer War!) although it managed to avoid most of the First World War clichés by the simple expedient of ending the episode with the departure of the first draft of volunteers.

There were some lovely moments.  John Simm’s shame at the generosity (or patronage) of his neighbour in face of his drunken aggression, the dismissal of the unpleasant schoolmaster from the recruitment station for being too short, the use of a recruiting poster that was not the (anachronistic) Kitchener. The implication that Bert’s older brother enlists in order to escape from a life of subservience and drudgery, rather than from war enthusiasm was a particular pleasure.  But overall the whole left me feeling uncomfortable.  It has been sold as the anti-Downton Abbey, a dose of working-class reality in opposition to Julian Fellowes’s soft focus nostalgia for the upper classes and noblesse oblige.  And there were certainly very few positive views of the upper classes, although the middle class (as represented by the nicer, taller schoolmaster and the vicar’s suffragette daughter) came off best.  But in making the daughter of the local squire a sexually predatory halfwit, her mother a vicious snob and promoter of (literally) Victorian gender values and the squire himself a physically damaged recluse who forces his staff to turn their back on him when he passes, the caricature seems to have swung too far in the other direction. Nor did the working classes come off as any more real.  Even with the skills of actors such as Simm and Maxine Peake, they never really gained more depth than ‘violent, drunken failed farmer’, ‘put-upon wife’ and ‘naive country girl’.

And then there was the focus on sex.  Yes, the story is being told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, so such a focus can be justified.  But did we really need quite so many scenes of voyeurism and sexual innuendo, culminating in a scene straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  The whole thing felt extremely Lawrentian, in fact, which coming from me is not particularly high praise.  I do like some of Lawrence’s poetry (Snake is something of a favourite) but as a portrayer of class and sexual relationships in his fiction, I have always found him unconvincing.  Or at least no more convincing than Fellowes’s historical world view.

Can there, then, be no middle way in how the past is portrayed in contemporary television drama?  Are we condemned to see history either in terms of soft-focus nostalgia or sex-and-violence grimness?  Parade’s End might point in another direction, having a satirical bite to its vision of the upper and upper-middle classes at war, although Ford’s portrayal of working class characters verges on the sentimental.  And it was, of course, an adaptation of contemporaneous fiction rather than a contemporary fictionalization of history, a point which rather supports my on-going argument that the fictions of the past have as much to teach us about the times they were created in as any facts.

In short, I don’t know.  I will carry on watching The Village, at least for the moment, but I will need a lot more convincing that this is the correct and necessary riposte to national and international obsession with Downton.