This week’s post is from guest author Eleanor Betts, who is currently researching a PhD with the Centre for the History of the Emotions at QMUL.
Writing has always been a big part of my life, even as a child. It was just a few weeks ago that I discovered some old schoolbooks stashed deep at the back of a cupboard. Whereas other kids sketched doodles or graffitied the name of their crush throughout their workbooks, mine were always littered with stories. It seems strange then, that I stopped writing these tales of imagination as soon as I started university. I just assumed that fiction and academia were meant to remain separate. How wrong I was.
I am now entering the third year of my PhD and I have started writing again. I don’t mean academic writing, that kind of writing seems to be a constant presence in my life! In the past few years I have written countless essays, two dissertations, and a number of chapter drafts, all in classic academic style. But I approached these in an almost mechanical way. Academic writing has strict formulas, certain rules, trained methods that get you a First. But I am not a machine, I am human. This attitude to writing was never going to last. I have now ‘seen the light’, as it were, and this post is about how writing fiction has helped, even improved, my work as a historian.
One of the tips that undergraduate and postgraduate students are told is to write a little of something every day. When I first heard this I thought, ‘psh, how am I going to manage to write a bit of an essay each day?’ But this is not what was meant by this handy piece of advice. It is promoting the practice of sitting down in front of a computer screen, or with a pen and paper, transferring thoughts into text. Yet there is no rule that says this writing has to be academic in nature. One of my colleagues writes a personal blog and is always eager to promote how this has helped the process of writing their thesis. Another writes book and film reviews. I write stories. Doing this has taught me methods to tackle periods of writer’s block. Writing no longer seems a huge hurdle to jump over. It no longer seems like this inconceivable project with a looming deadline. Writing has now become a habit. Something so natural that I’m sure I could do it in my sleep (not that I’ve tried, or course).
Perhaps the best thing that writing fiction alongside my academic work has given me is a renewed enthusiasm for history. Rather than just reading words on a page or numbers in a table, fiction has reminded me that history is the study of real lives and real people. Every character has their own tale to tell, they experienced the world in their own way. As historians it is our place to step into the shoes of these people and document the story of lives past. History is not only the study of facts and figures, it is history.
Of course, I am careful not to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction writing styles – for there is a distinction that should be maintained. I am cautious not to allow the academic writing techniques I developed in my years at university to become, as was once pointed out by a colleague, ‘flowery’. Like any genre, academic writing does have its rules and methods, but indulging in a bit of story-telling on the side can help the imaginative process that is necessary in all writing. We are all writers, whatever our profession, and there is no reason why non-fiction should be devoid of imagination.