In a series of classic science fiction stories, Isaac Asimov imagined a scientific discipline called “psychohistory”: a way to predict the future of an interstellar empire. Psychohistory could not foresee individual choices, but it could supposedly predict collective behavior over the course of millennia. At one point in the Foundation series, however, a charismatic figure named the Mule threatened to upend psychohistory’s predictions: he was a mutant, acting in ways the original model could not anticipate. In the universe Asimov imagined, the Mule alone seemed to possess true individual agency. Resisting a powerful model of human behavior, he offered instead a story about a person.
I thought about the Foundation books when I read a recent essay by a French revolutionary historian. David A. Bell argues that the new American president’s unpredictable personal character “may force [future] social scientists and historians to look beyond their usual analytical tools.” In other words, scholars trained to seek impersonal “structural” causes of human behavior may not be fully equipped to explain the course of American politics after 2016. An old-fashioned “great man” or “heroic” model of historical behavior may prove useful.
I am not sure I agree with David Bell’s prediction. As far as historical theory goes, in fact, I can imagine historians reacting to the incoming administration in just the opposite way—by stressing the limits of individual power. However, I do think many historians will react to own their heightened sense of contingency by trying to shape events themselves—especially by producing accessible books, op-eds, and other pieces of public scholarship. If they do so, they will only intensify a shift that is already well underway in the historical profession.
Plenty of academically trained historians today want to tell stories non-academics will read. I say “tell stories” because fundamentally that is what historians do, even when it doesn’t look like it. (Even stories about big impersonal forces are still stories.) The problem—besides having so many other demands on our time—is that we are not always prepared to tell stories that make sense to non-initiates.
Ten days ago, I posted a Twitter poll asking historians whether they had received any training in how to write narrative history as part of their graduate studies. Ninety historians took the poll; 75 percent said they had not received any substantial training. Some clarified that this meant they had not been trained to write narrative at all, for any kind of audience.
A few days later, I followed up by asking historians on Twitter what their own favorite guides for writing narrative were. Many people were ready with detailed responses, which apparently, in many cases, they had discovered on their own. Here are some of the most common or enthusiastic recommendations I received:
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
- Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing
- Jack Hart, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction
- Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—And Get It Published
- Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, eds., Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
- James B. Stewart, Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction
- John McPhee, “Structure: Beyond the Picnic-Table Crisis,” in The New Yorker
- Donna Seaman, interview with Erik Larson for Creative Nonfiction
- David Hackett Fischer, “The Braided Narrative: Substance and Form in Social History,” in Angus Fletcher, ed., The Literature of Fact
- Stephen Pyne, Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction
I am grateful to historians and editors including Amy Kohout, L. D. Burnett, Peter Ginna, Heather C. Richardson, Ronit Stahl, David Head, Charlie McCrary, and Justin Taylor for these and other suggestions. I can endorse several of those titles myself, particularly Storycraft and Telling True Stories.
It strikes me that most of these guides are written by journalists. Because of that, they offer invaluable advice for dealing with problems that historians routinely encounter without much training. By virtue of the same fact, however, academically trained historians probably have all sorts of specific practical questions these guides do not address. Some of those questions surely vary by subdiscipline.
As a new federal administration takes power in the United States, therefore, I am thinking about what else early American historians can do to help each other overcome our specific writing challenges. If there are often large gaps in our graduate training, as well as significant gaps in the advice offered by most narrative journalists, then how can we work together to fill these gaps?