Writing community and personal history: Part I

Ron Maslin, woman writing at Condobolin, State Library of NSW, bcp_02914
Ron Maslin, woman writing at Condobolin, State Library of NSW, bcp_02914

The work I am doing right now is mostly editing, in one form or another, so I am spending my days taking the words of others and turning them over and over, to remove the mistakes we all make as we write, and present a polished product. This is proofreading and we all need it, no matter what we are writing, because when we are working so hard to get content across we can no longer see the mistakes we have made; a date here, a silly word choice there, a disastrous error of grammar. It’s simple and straightforward work, very enjoyable, and mostly appreciated by the person being edited.

Other times, one has to be interventionist. Sometimes fact-checking is needed and other times the work has to be cut so hard it must be rewritten. When I am doing this I am obliged to identify what in the piece is not working, why that is, and the words that might work better. It is an intense and reflective process, and that reflection generates plenty of ideas about exactly what it is that makes good (and bad) history. (I then have to sensitively and kindly explain to the person being edited why I have done what I have done, and sometimes they are upset, and my reflections are necessary to win them over, or at least persuade them to accept it).

When I say I am reflecting on history, I’m not talking about a philosophy of history, or even a philosophy of writing. I certainly can’t talk about history in the way that Tom Griffiths and his subjects do in The Art of Time Travel. The down-and-dirty work of editing requires a narrower focus. Narrow doesn’t mean shallow though, because good history writing requires deep thought and a great deal of integrity, as well as commitment to the reader, and to the story.

My PhD supervisor knew that I thought most community history was deathly boring, and used to accuse me of writing it when I had produced something leaden. It got me thinking, and now I edit so much of it, I have to think more. So, a few insights from recent voyages in editing, and some general points from a long career reading community history.

When writing history

  • What matters is the story, so find it. Don’t tell us it is remarkable or important or tragic; show us that it was by setting the context.
  • Don’t do “this happened and then, and then, and then” history. Think in themes, not chronologies. Don’t be afraid to start your story somewhere other than in the beginning.
  • Never say “something was done”. Always tell us who did it. This is called writing in the active voice but it’s not just a grammar technique. Explaining who did what to whom puts the energy, heart and meaning into your story. The mine did not close. The government closed the mine. The workers were not sacked. The boss sacked them.
  • Never try to put yourself into people’s minds or insert thoughts in their heads or words in their mouths. Focus only on what they said, and what you can know about what they did. If they said one thing and did another, point that out, but never say “they must have thought …”

When writing (even a short) biography

  • Don’t tell us they were important/remarkable/amazing. Show us they were, by setting them in context and framing the times they lived in and their place within them.
  • You are writing about a person, so write about their personal life and their personality. It matters. This is particularly important from a feminist/other point of view. It’s important to ask not only how a subject’s personal life affected their actions and emotional wellbeing and capacities. It matters and we need to ask these fundamental questions about women and men.
  • Ask yourself in what ways your subject was awful and why they were like that (without putting your words into their mouths). Be really honest about these things and about how they shaped the person’s life and actions.
  • Then, ask yourself why you like them and be honest about that. Remember, you have an agenda too. What is it?

When writing history in Australia

  • Don’t forget this is Aboriginal land. Always was, always will be. Find out about the people whose land it was and is.
  • And, because of this, every single person who has come here since 1788 was a migrant. You can think of them in waves: Anglo-Irish, Europeans, Chinese, post-war displaced persons, Indo-Chinese, etc, but you must always think of migration as a continuum. We are a migrant country.

And finally, be kind to your reader. They don’t always know what you know, so make sure you give them a few words that will help them understand just why the cool thing you are telling them is so very cool.

Then, when you are finished, give it to a nice editor and let them knock those rough edges off, and hope your readers enjoy it.

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