Stephen Pyne’s How-To of History: Thinking, Choosing, Writing

(Apologies to those of you who dutifully waited up Wednesday for this post; it’s that time of semester. But my book manuscript did get finalized as you waited, so it’s a step closer to store shelves!)

I was quite impressed by Stephen Pyne’s Voice & Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Serious Nonfiction. I, like Pyne, had been disappointed too often when reading other writing guides. There were how-to-research books. Then the how-to-get-motivated-to-write books that plague the life of graduate students. And the books by writers of fiction or journalism had piqued my interest – how to read like a writer! – but then they did not meet my needs, as one tied to the rules of nonfiction. I had been burned before — but Pyne did not disappoint.

Pyne is writing a how-to guide, with all the pitfalls of the genre — it can’t be too specific to your project; it can mostly inspire broadly rather than create a true step-by-step approach; and it may end up feeling like the same platitudes and hollow encouragements. At worst, as one of my students suggested, it can come across as a diet book for the mind.

Yet Pyne does more than remind you to eat a healthy supply of fibrous history and do your literary exercises. Most of what he urges is simple (and perhaps obvious) advice — his insistence that a historian must write and rewrite and experiment and fail and write again to find a range of adequate voices; that historians can take risks with style but never with facts; that when historians have finished the research, they must think carefully about the shape and tone (in his words, vision and voice) of the argument, as well as its content and credibility. But one can never hear these solid pieces of advice too often.

Pyne suggests that a book is a bridge, and that each element, from foundation to framing to span, better be working correctly or there will be a lot of cars in the water. He also helpfully suggests that some books are pontoon bridges, with mostly rearrangeable parts, while others are suspension bridges, the relation between each piece crucial to the overall success.

In my conversations with the best writers of history, these concerns of structure are paramount — what holds the book together, what drives the reader from start to finish, where the tale opens and how and why it closes as it does. Reading Pyne’s book made me aware, again, of how different these conversations are those who merely seek the book’s intervention or its findings. To make your argument with the elegance of the Golden Gate will always attract more sightseers than crossing the drab San Mateo bridge.

The journal Historically Thinking and the Historical Society blog provided a précis of Pyne’s book, and invited Michael Kammen, Jill Lepore, and John Demos to reflect upon Pyne’s call to make history a literary art again. Lepore provided a delightful look at her suggestions to students, on how writing for her class was much like preparing a fresh-caught fish for dinner; Demos and Kammen reflect on earlier efforts to advise historical writers, and what courses they offer look like.

These are quite eye-opening when placed alongside Pyne’s Literary Nonfiction syllabus. In his own classroom, Pyne nicely balances the reading of inspirational histories with the hard work of crafting a historical style, using anonymity to shield fledgling student writers.

Here, the how-to gives way to the creation of a community of writers. Getting together with a group of like-minded nonfiction writers, asking about their choice of structure, thinking through the voice on the page, and getting together again, with more new writing — nothing else can guarantee success.

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2 Responses to Stephen Pyne’s How-To of History: Thinking, Choosing, Writing

  1. Jana says:

    I just got my copy of Pyne’s book and can’t wait to dig in–especially because I’m in the midst of rewriting a chapter of my dissertation that, at first pass, was hugely dull reading.

  2. Jana says:

    And congrats on finishing the book manuscript, too. I am so green with envy!