On Writing Stories and Writing Histories and What We’re Really Searching For

June 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

I spent my morning puzzling over something my friend said last night.  We were talking about writing.  About why some people become writers and some of us – stop.  (Hopefully he’ll pardon me my version of this tale.)  He said that he wrote in part to figure out the puzzles of human communication, the mysteries of how people relate to each other, how they come to understand and know and (fail to) connect with each other.

I had never thought about it that way.

And so, I have been puzzling over this question.  Why do some of us stay writers, why do some of us stop? There were three writers at the table, but only he had kept on following those threads, unraveling and digging into those puzzles, telling his stories, crafting his characters, being a writer.  But she and I, though we spent our girlhoods writing — stories, reams of stories, and poems too — somewhere along the way we had stopped.

I had been a veritable Emily of New Moon, writing poems and silly novellas while pining over some boy who couldn’t see me for anything.  Or didn’t want to see me.  Or saw the need, the profound human and emotional need written all over me, and was wise to run in the other direction.  Ran away from all of that intensity and desire that I threw at the world, hoping to see some echo of recognition or respite come back to me.  That I poured into my stories, at once an escape from and a recognition of what I considered a profound unhappiness.

I wrote such silly wonderful stories, all the same, tales of plucky bright young girls with energy and daring, who were above all comfortable – so comfortable – in their own skin, who lived out little adventures and romances in their lovely worlds of lives.  I was a perfect student of Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery.  I wrote about angst too, but it was never angst trapped in inaction.  My girls were actors in their own lives, agents, they responded but they also changed things.

When I got older I wrote “darker” things – even sillier, really, pseudo-Beat poems that were in fact grotesque (I didn’t know it then) parodies of Bob Dylan songs.  But all endless dopplegangers of me tinged with the stylistic perfume of whichever Great Writer I was reading that month.  And that is of course why I stopped writing.  I stopped wanting to write stories that were endless fantasies of me, but always trapped in someone else’s voice.  But I think I also grew bored with living in other worlds when I so desperately wanted to find a world of my own in which to enact my particular agency.

And perhaps I also stopped writing because I actually started to live.  I found a boyfriend and a path to follow.  I was no longer caught in the suffocation of an unhappy family and the frustrated desires of adolescence.  I finally had what felt like real agency.  I was still obsessed with other lives and other stories.  But not novels.  History.

You see, I had discovered something.

History is the most wonderful place for the seeker after other lives.  Whether the lives you seek, the stories you fold yourself into and puzzle through are dark or dull or beautiful — the historian is a seeker after stories in the hopes of solving some set of problems that we ask of people and ask of the past.  Why do we think and act this way?  Why do we want what we want?  Have we always wanted and feared and done the same things and why not and how and what if–?

We seek answers in the mysteries of other lives and other choices.  The way my friend seeks after the mysteries of how we recognize one another, but he creates his own (pardon the metaphor) fantasy lab in his head, where he unravels his plots, his characters.  This is his answer to his quest to understand (among other things) how we connect and communicate and know each other.  I became bored with my writing because I used it to create an escape, a cocoon for myself, and I could never not write about me.  I didn’t have any interesting problems worth solving.  But somehow, as a historian I have found a way to continue to explore  how we create worlds, worlds with very great consequences for the lives we find ourselves in now.  I think novelists are doing that too, but from a different direction.

There are many writers, many reasons for writing and not writing and deciding what we write about.  Of course I’m still a writer, but not the kind of writer who unravels a skein of humanity inside hir head and fashions it into something new and strange — something never  known before.  We’re all voyeurs, writers, only I follow dead people into the lives they (may have) led through the detritus they left behind, detritus that someone at some point felt was important enough to save.  I puzzle out who and why they were.  The main difference in what  I write is not that my stories are “real” (they’re not, no no, not after Hayden White!). The difference is not just the endless analysis that smothers my stories.

The difference is where we find the dialogue.  Whereas he seeks after the mysteries of human communication, understanding, connection — things I also find clues to in my reams of printed detritus — but unlike the novelist, I will never have to puzzle over the messy business of dialogue.  I can zoom in just enough to watch people moving through their worlds, but do I ever get close enough to figure out how they really speak?

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