09 December 2005 by Published in: General musings 3 comments

In response to yesterday’s bout of shameless self-promotion, I was led to ponder once again a question that I get asked often–why do I write?

The answer is simple–because I need to do so. It’s no secret that I don’t much like my job–I’ve bored all of you to death with that already, and won’t beat that poor dead horse any more than it’s already been beaten. However, my dissatisfaction with my employment leaves me with a need to find an outlet. I have always found the writer’s art–finding ways to put words together in a fashion that tells a story–absolutely fascinating. One thing about how I make my livelihood–you quickly learn the power of words and you quickly learn that how you put words together can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. Consequently, I’m on a never-ending journey to find the perfect way to tell a story. While I know that there is no such thing as the “perfet way to tell a story,” the fun lies in the attempt. As I go back and read things that I wrote early on, I can see a dramatic change in the quality of what I write from even 1998 or 1999. Like anything, writing is one of those things where the more you do, the better you get.

Writing has always been good therapy for me. Since I got serious about writing history about a dozen years ago, I have found that losing myself completely in events that happened 140 years ago is incredibly liberating. It removes me from the stresses of everyday life, and is so far removed from what I do professionally that a couple of hours spent writing completely recharges my batteries. It energizes me and it enables me to be able to refocus my admittedly short attention span on my professional responsibilities. Losing myself in events of the past allows me to forget about the war in Iraq, or terrorism, or any of the other things that cause day-to-day stress in our lives. For me, it’s an ideal way of getting a couple of hours entirely for myself.

I also find that the best way for me to really learn about a battle or an action is for me to research it and write about it. Doing so forces me to really learn and understand it–how can I explain it clearly in words if I don’t understand it? It’s a good tool for forcing me to focus and learn. So, that’s yet another reason for why I do what I do–to educate myself.

Further, I get an enormous kick out of the process of researching an event or a person and then in pulling all of the disparate threads of the story together to weave them into a cohesive narrative that makes sense. For me, that is not only the true challenge, but also the the true reward. It’s like doing detective work. Half the fun of tackling obscure, unknown events is figuring out what really happened and then crafting a narrative that follows that interpretation of events. Part of the fun of that is finding and reviewing the participant accounts and then trying to figure out what’s reliable and what isn’t.

It’s important to remember that when I–or any other historian, for that matter–write an account of something, it’s just that: MY account, MY interpretation. We were not there, so we have no first-hand knowledge. Rather, what we do is figure out how we THINK event occurred, put those events together using the available evidence, and then present the story of those events in a fashion that’s consistent with our interpretation. I fully understand that there are other interpretations out there and that not everyone will agree with my interpretations about things. That’s okay with me; I have no urge to be absolutely right about everything.

Sometimes, the interpretation changes as the narrative is forged. There are times when I set out to write something and the evidence leads in such a different or unexpected direction that it deviates completely from what I originally had in mind, and my interpretation ends up changing. It’s all about flexibility and going where the evidence leads you, not drawing a desired conclusion and then manipulating the evidence to support that conclusion, whether warranted or not.

Finally, there’s an intangible reason. Buried deep inside me is my true calling, which is to have been a teacher of some sort. Since I don’t get to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate, doing so in writing is my way of teaching and sharing my knowledge. When I write, with the knowledge that something will be published, I do so knowing that it will help to scratch my teaching itch. That’s an entirely selfish reason.

So, the short answer is: I write because I have to. It’s how I keep my sanity, it’s how I learn, and it’s become an integral part of who and what I am.

Scridb filter


  1. Paul Taylor
    Mon 12th Dec 2005 at 10:35 am


    Reading this “rant” was like looking in a mirror!! 🙂 Especially the teaching bit. I found myself a few years ago seriously contemplating a career change. I toyed with the notion of going back to school and getting a doctorate with the hope of teaching history at the university level. I was able to discuss my idea with the dean of history at Wayne State, who, very diplomatically and gently, squashed my plan. Being 46 at the time, he pointed out that I would probably face unspoken age-discrimination by the time I obtained my degree. Further, he informed me that professors of American history are, on average, the second-oldest group of teachers in academia. They simply do not retire! Lastly, plain-old white-bread American history was no longer in vogue on many college campuses.

    So, like you, I decided it would be best to keep the day job and continue our off-hours avocation — what I call “literary archeology.”

    March on,

  2. Mon 12th Dec 2005 at 3:01 pm


    Amen, brother. You and I are not alone……


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