When we applied for funding from History in Action we made the case that a creative writing workshop would make us better writers. This has proven to be true, but it has also helped us to think more capaciously about history and to ask better questions. The workshop allowed us to see ourselves as writers, beyond the boundaries of academic discipline, and to create a supportive, dedicated community where we see each other as writers.
The initial response from our fellow graduate students was impressive. Some mentioned their excitement for such a project or that they were already at work completing their own novels, while others were more tentative or curious. We worried that the workshop might become too large and unwieldy, but by the time the semester’s work began we ended up with a smaller core group of creative writers working on both fiction and nonfiction. The projects involved included a budding novel set around the Trinity River in Texas at the turn of the twentieth century; a narratively complex piece on the history of ad-blocking; the beginning of a mysterious and tantalizing relationship between a physiotherapist and her patient in Boston; lyrical encyclopedic entries on photographic innovations made in the desert; and a fractured imagining of the inner lives of famous and infamous women in the history of Russia.
Producing work did prove difficult, whether because of our other commitments or old-fashioned writer’s block. But we persisted in supporting and learning from each other. Our identities as PhD candidates and historians brought different ideas into our writing as well as different stakes. Unlike workshops portrayed on TV or experienced by some of us, the variety of the work we were engaged in ensured that there was no competitive tension between us, and no egos were threatened by constructive criticism.
Our guest speakers proved immensely useful and inspirational to us. Steven Katz, a screenwriter for The Knick among other shows, talked with us about the recent boom in historical television which demonstrates that history can be popular and in demand. It’s become clear that TV productions are taking historical accuracy ever more seriously, providing opportunities for the historian interested in research or writing work in the industry. Our dinner with Elizabeth Cobbs, a professor of US-foreign relations at Texas A&M and the author of several award-winning monographs and novels, came at a point near the end of the semester when we had experienced the roadblocks of writing fiction. The combination of her practical and philosophical advice on everything from specific technical writing problems to the challenges of balancing academic and literary careers made what we were trying to do seem feasible. She described epiphanies in which thinking through character relationships in her novel gave her new insights on the history and historiography of her subjects. As has also become apparent at other HIA workshops which expose students to the multifaceted careers of our program’s alumni, we cannot overemphasize the power of having role models who allow you to visualize what is possible in the course of our intellectual lives.
Some History in Action events present their subject as an either/or option, or as a Plan B for graduate students, but we’ve focused on the possibility of being both a historian and a creative writer. Funding and institutional support allowed our workshop to happen and we hope to continue the workshop indefinitely as a foundation for the complementary work of historians and writers.