My ever-dutiful adviser dutifully sent me comments on my last chapter within three days of me sending it off — as always, I’m impressed (or is it intimidated?) by my adviser’s productivity and dedication. And, as I suspected, this last chapter wasn’t all that interesting in terms of analysis. Good story, fine narrative, but no analytical oomph. My adviser identified a few flecks of gold at which I could chip away and see if there’s anything more there, so that’s good. But the short of it is that there’s much more brain work to be done to go along with my storytelling work.
The question presents itself: do I take it slower on this next chapter, integrating analysis as I go along? Or do I proceed as before, moving through the narrative with the plan of adding my analytical interventions in a later draft? I’m leaning towards the latter, because it seems to me that — at least in my writing — arguments develop through and after the narrative. In telling the story, I make arguments (explicit and implicit) about the story. In choosing my characters, events, timelines, etc., I am, however subconsciously, making choices about why things happened as they did, and that is essentially what historical analysis is all about: explaining why.
Here’s my take-away: accept that your first draft will be good on story and crap on analysis. If I can live with that, then I think I can craft a better story, and, in doing so, set myself up for better analysis.
Also, a new feature on the blog: Bonus Unrelated Photos of My Dog.
I sent off the third chapter of my dissertation yesterday, and I’m feeling pretty…bleh. I’m glad to have another chapter out the door, and I think it’s pretty solid. But I’m not sure what to expect from my committee — they politely instructed me to rewrite, rather than revise, the last chapter I sent in — and I’m wondering if the chapter’s thesis is really all that interesting. This might be the cost of my emphasis on narrative; while the story might be good, the analysis probably needs work. But I’ve been inside my own head for so long that I’m not sure where to take the analysis, specifically, what interpretations and arguments other readers might find interesting. I need feedback, and I’m blessed to have a couple of committee members who are good about that. But in the meantime I wait, and I’ll return to that rewrite-not-revise chapter tomorrow. Today, though, I’m taking a break and catching up on domestic duties, like that pesky leaking sink drain…
The writing spirit has moved me of late, and I’ve been averaging 786.77 words and 2.69 paragraphs per writing day. At this rate, I should finish the 12,000 words for this chapter’s rough draft in two days. I know this because I keep track on a spreadsheet: the date, the total words written, the total paragraphs written, the words and paragraphs per day, average word/paragraph production, and days to finish at current rate. When I explained this system to a non-academic friend of mine, he said, “That doesn’t really sound like creative writing to me.” And, of course, he’s right. In fact, I’m not even sure I would consider what I’m doing “writing.” I am wringing out words, spawning sentences, producing paragraphs. I think I’ve slipped in some good ideas here and there, but right now I’m just trying to get the narrative on the page. And it is liberating; I have often tortured myself over the perfect argument, retreated to my research notes on a hunt for the tidbit that will bring that perfection, only to find myself stumped or sidetracked. But when I follow the narrative, I find myself bumping into analytical problems that I must resolve (at least partially) in order to move on to the next part of the story. And that imperative — to solve the problem so that I can get on with the story — places an immediacy on my analysis that demands focus. Which is to say: when I’m forced to figure out a problem, I usually do. My analysis isn’t airtight, but I’m not done with my analysis yet; that’s what revisions are for. But first I need to write the story.
Perhaps the craziest and most wonderful thing about the union activity in Wisconsin (see Harry Brighouse‘s posts at Crooked Timber for some good reporting and analysis) is that it’s happening now. In a moment when nearly 10% of people who want a job can’t get one, the employed are doing things that put their livelihoods in peril. This runs in the face of a general rule of labor history: the labor movement prospers during booms and scatters during busts. When capitalists are desperate for workers (1920s, 1950s), they will bow to union demands; when the pool of reserve labor fills up (Depression, 1970s-1980s), capitalists set workers against each other and destroy solidarity. Unions have made gains during bust-times only when the government has stepped in to assert and protect workers’ rights (like during the New Deal). But here we have a situation in which Wisconsin workers are surrounded by leagues of the unemployed and desperate, but instead of turning on each other and doing whatever the Man says to save their own asses, they have made themselves vulnerable by heading into the streets. It’s a remarkable display of courage.
Whence this courage and strength to not only put your job on the line, but to buck the trends of history? It must in part come from a sense that enough is enough; that workers — public or otherwise — can’t be pushed much farther before they fall into poverty and despair. In this way, the strength of the Wisconsin movement comes from precisely that source which, judging by historical precedent, should be weakening solidarity: the shitty employment situation. But instead of turning on each other, Wisconsin workers are turning to each other. I don’t want to get carried away and say that this represents a watershed moment in the history of the labor movement (okay, I do want to get carried away), but you have to admit that this seems pretty special.
Our friend Elia Peattie had to make some difficult choices when writing The Story of America. Covering 400 years of American history for a young adult audience meant that she couldn’t possibly include every bit of detail, so she had to decide — like all storytellers must — what information the reader needed to follow and understand the narrative. Here are some of the things that made the cut in the chapter “Founding the Old Dominion,” about the origins of Jamestown:
- John Smith was “most disagreeable,” and had been thrown in the stockade while the London Company took the “old route of the West Indies, stopping along the by the way in the pleasant towns of the Spaniards, and wasting both time and food” (63).
- While wading a creek, Smith was stung by a poisonous fish that nearly took his life; his comrades even dug a grave for him (66).
- Powhatan was “very stalwart and well-shaped of limb, and with a sad countenance and thin grey hair” (66)
Meanwhile, things like the economic motivation for Jamestown don’t get much attention. And while that would certainly raise eyebrows in a comprehensive exam, I think Peattie was on to something in terms of narrative and, by extension, analysis. Peattie included (concocted?) details that she thought revealed something about the character and personality of the historical actors in her narrative. John Smith was an asshole, argues Peattie, but that asshole-ish-ness also made him just the right person to pull Jamestown through until England sent more money. I don’t buy the argument, of course; as I’ve noted earlier, I don’t go in for history-made-by-individuals. But I agree with Peattie’s method: include details that are both interesting and integral for your argument. Make your narrative your analysis and your analysis your narrative.