THE CRAFT OF WRITING HISTORY- Linda Wells

A PhD candidate from the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Linda Wells reflects on a recent workshop hosted by Associate Professor Tiffany Shellam, that examined the creative processes associated with writing history.

 

My PhD is a combination of history and creative writing. My supervisors sit comfortably in the School of Communication and Creative Arts where I am happy to join them. At the same time, my work has involved extensive historical research. Rather than being a historian, I am, perhaps, a ‘practitioner of the past’. It is a term author and academic Kiera Lindsey uses for those of us who, without formal history training, immerse ourselves in the research of the past with the aim of narrativising it in creative ways. Of course, all writing is creative and all history imaginative to some extent unless it is simply a list of names, dates, and events. Even then the list would be biased by the creators of the initial documents, those who chose what to archive and those who chose what to report on.

Without a Tardis, we cannot know what went on in the past and no historian can recreate it, regardless of how meticulous their methods are. Nevertheless, historians have duties that differ from those of the writers of fiction. Writers of fiction have their own obligations. It is this contested space between history and fiction that I consider at length as I write my own creative artifact, Living in Tin: The Bungalow Alice Springs, 1914 – 1929. 

My writing practice is guided by several intentions which include:

  • to address shortcomings in the way Australian history has conventionally been written;
  • to create a palpable sense of time and place;
  • to challenge colonial notions of temporality and thus explore the inextricable link between past, present and future;
  • to explore the affective and effective nature of this story.

I also strive to develop a work of literature that is ethical, critical, suitable for a broad readership and historically authentic. 

A workshop, on the topic of the craft of writing, was right up my alley, particularly when the facilitator was historian, Associate Professor Tiffany Shellam. I met Associate Professor Shellam early in my candidature and she has made herself available since then for sticky questions that pertain to the discipline of history.  I’m a candidate in the Deakin Cloud campus as well, and I spend far too much time researching and writing on my own. I relished this opportunity to meet with fellow PhD candidates and share our ideas.

The writing of creative histories requires contemplation of what history is and what it isn’t. It’s a notion I have been developing throughout my studies, that was confirmed by the presentation of a range of points of view on the philosophical nature of history with which Associate Professor Shellam opened the workshop.

Sam Wineberg’s book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001) argues history holds the potential for humanising us in ways that are offered by a few other disciplines. He speaks of the tension between the familiar and strange that underlies every encounter we have with the past. This idea of the strangeness of history is echoed in the work of Richard White in Remember Ahanagram: A History of Stories (1998). Any good history begins in strangeness, he says. The past should not be a comfortable, familiar echo of the present, for if it is familiar why visit it? The past should be so strange that you wonder how you, and people you know and love, could come from such a time.

History is not the past. It is an interpretation of the past, made by people in the present. Keith Jenkins (Re-thinking History, 1991) says that through the benefit of hindsight and the application of labels and judgments, in a way we know more about the past than the people who lived it.

Greg Denning (Readings/Writings, 1998) notes imagination can be unnerving for historians who might think it demands a loosening of their grip on the reality that makes their histories different from fiction.  Imagination need not be unnerving, he says and it need not be fantasy. Imagination is the ability to see those fine-lined and faint webs of significance, of hearing the silence because we have heard some of the sounds around it, of seeing the absent things because we have seen so much else.

Associate Professor Shellam presented these ideas as provocations and led a discussion about how they relate to our own writing. She then guided us in a consideration of how to write our researched histories with style. We can write with our senses; what did the past smell and sound like? What of the sound of our own writing – its rhythm and musicality? We can manipulate the sounds of our stories with considerations of wordiness, punctuation, short or long sentences. Our writing can convey tension through the use of dialogue, dramatic tension and plot. It can be poetic using devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration. These techniques pertain just as much to the writing of history as to any other literary venture.

The workshop left me with ideas, inspiration, and new contacts. That is a success I would say.  

– Linda Wells

Biography


Linda Wells is from Melbourne, Australia. She spent three decades in Central Australia; working in education and community development, conducting guided walking tours and writing. Linda is the author of two books: Still a Town Like Alice published by the Alice Springs Town Council, 2011 and Kultitja; Memoir of an outback schoolteacher, Ginninderra Press, 2016.  Linda is currently undertaking a PhD in history and creative writing with Deakin University, Melbourne.

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