What Happens When Historians Write

Or at least “what happens when this historian writes”: Mybrain aches. Literally. It’s not a headache in the conventional sense of the word.

Instead . . . my brain actually feels, well, like it’s just run a marathon. So tired at the end of a day that I have a hard time “thinking” about much of anything. (This is why I make large portions when I cook and why I own a freezer.) (Although, I have to say that cooking is a near-perfect way to unwind an exhausted brain.)

Anyway, I’ve been writing. Lots. Thousands of words. I have written, as near as I can tell, about a third of the manuscript in the past two weeks alone. (For those keeping track — who? ME? Nah. — near as I can tell, I’ve now written about half of what will be the final product.)

It’s always like this: I spend the first, I dunno, eighteen months of a project thinking and reading and sort of writing. Then I start writing the first chapter and it feels as if I’m trying to push a huge wooden wagon out of a rut. I push. And I push. And I push. And I get nowhere.

And then suddenly, the wagon’s wheels lurch forward, just a bit. A tiny jolt of momentum. So I lean into the wagon and push harder. And — the wagon starts rolling. And it moves faster and faster and faster….

But somehow, the mental part of keeping the wagon moving becomes harder and harder and harder. Not because I get lazy or lose interest, but because by the time the wagon lurches forward, my brain is that much more stuffed with facts and information.

More to the point, it’s working furiously, processing that information, relating one seemingly unrelated fact or detail or event to another to another to another.

So, for example, as I was writing chapter three (which mysteriously morphed into chapter four…), I realized that I’d been wrong about something I wrote in chapter one.  I misunderstood the relationship of A to B. And as I re-wrote that part of chapter one, I suddenly realized that the new ideas connected to a major point in chapter two.

Which, you guessed it, meant writing a new section to chapter two. Which caused it to balloon in size and focus, so that what had been the second half of the second chapter became the first half of the third chapter. Which meant the second half of the third chapter became the first half of the fourth chapter. And all of it, in turn, caused me to re-think another section of chapter one, so I re-wrote that. And . . .

You get the picture. At the end of a day, I’ve written perhaps three thousand words, which are not just words but ideas and analyses. And my brain aches. So that’s what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been. Oh, my aching brain. Oh, my poor, poor neglected blog.

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