Fri 18 Feb 2011
It’s been one, two, three… 125 days(!) since I posted my last blog. That is a shamefully long time. I’m sure you’re wondering what I have been doing during my lengthy hiatus. On second thought, you could probably care less. No matter, I’m going to tell you anyway. I’d like to say I’ve been busy working on my next novel, Kingdom. However, I’ve actually been finishing a project of a different sort: my doctoral thesis. That’s right, I’ve been writing “real” history. What’s the difference? In historical fiction or popular history, the writer tells a story about the past. In academic history, the writer makes an argument about the past, and every single statement is embedded in a web of arguments made by other historians. Or, to put it more pithily: history takes a lot longer to write than historical fiction and is not nearly as much fun to read. Not that my thesis isn’t thrilling – it’s a ripping yarn about the role of revolution in shifting the limits of self-becoming – but it’s not exactly the sort of book you would take to the beach.
And now, at long last, it is done. I am officially a doctor of philosophy. So if you are suffering from nihilism or some other philosophical illness, I’m your man. Or, if you’re having a heart attack, I can offer you a brief history of the treatment of heart disease. Heart disease was rare before the 20th century because most people had diets low in fats and carbohydrates. In his Canon of Medicine (1020), Avicenna suggested the use of the root zarnab as a remedy to heart troubles, and recent analysis has shown that it is an effective calcium channel blocker. Further significant advances would have to wait until the early 20th century. In medical terms, a “heart attack” is referred to as a myocardial infarction… Oh wait, you’re dead. What is this history degree good for again?
Actually, I’m very excited to be a newly minted PhD. I can now insist that my friends refer to me as Doctor Hight or The Doctor. I get a cool hood that makes me look like a Jedi. And, I don’t have to work on my thesis anymore! All joking aside, the best part of getting a doctorate is that I learned a lot about history and even more about writing. A doctoral thesis is a big project. It takes years of archival research. Sometimes this work is fascinating; for instance, trial dossiers for suspects in the 1848 June Days uprising in Paris often contain large amounts of gunpowder, because having a cartridge was considered evidence of sedition. Nothing makes history come to life like having to brush gunpowder off of witness testimony before you read it. (On a side note, maybe I’m crazy, but storing gunpowder-filled files in an archive overflowing with extremely dry pieces of paper seems like a bad idea.) On the other hand, historical research is often mind-numbingly dull. I once spent an entire winter at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, reading a thousand hand-written letters a day in the hopes of finding one or two that interested me.
All of that is to say that historical research teaches patience. And patience is hugely important for a writer because all writing – whether a thesis, novel, play, or screenplay – takes time, and lots of it. Starting one of these projects can be daunting. I know plenty of people who were initially paralyzed by the scope of their thesis. I know plenty more who want to be novelists, but who balk at the notion of writing an entire novel. One of the most common things that people say when they learn that I am a writer is something in the nature of, “Wow, how do you do that? I could never sit down and write a whole novel.” I sometimes feel the same way when I start a new project. “How,” I ask myself, “am I ever going to get through this?” Sometimes, this question becomes so overwhelming that it’s hard to even get started. This is what is generally known as writer’s block.
I’m sure that different authors deal with writer’s block in different ways. I discovered my method while writing my thesis. The secret is to remember this one fact: you’re not actually writing a thesis, or a novel, or a screenplay. And that’s a good thing, because sitting down and writing such a big project in one sitting is impossible (or at the very least, ill-advised). Instead, start small and set modest, achievable goals. When I began my thesis, I didn’t sit down to write the whole thing, or even an entire chapter. Instead, I broke each chapter into finite, two- to five page projects. And you would be surprised what a difference this makes. It is much, much easier to start a five-page project, which you know you can finish in a day or two, than to make yourself sit down and write a fifty-page chapter or three-hundred page thesis.
It works the same way with novels. When I write fiction, I write one scene at a time, and scenes rarely last longer than 4 pages. This allows me to set goals that can be completed that day, and ending the day having finished something is hugely satisfying. It makes me feel good and eager to come back the next day to write more. If I set goals that are too big – finishing a chapter in a day, for instance – then I inevitably fail, which makes me feel like, well, a failure. And writing is hard enough when I’m in a good mood!
So that is the big lesson that I learned from my thesis: start small. Write one section or one scene at a time. Eventually, those scenes will add up! And on that note, it’s time that I get back to work on Kingdom. If I hurry, I can still finish a scene before supper.