Beacon Street Diary blog
A Week at Writing Camp
I spent last week at the Kenyon Institute, a program for writers held at Kenyon College in Ohio. This one was geared toward people interested in things spiritual — for a whole host of reasons, I soon discovered — and brought together a mix of rabbis, ministers, and priests, as well as riffraff like me, who defied easy categorization. It was a lot like summer camp, making new friends and challenging yourself to do something scary — reading your composition out loud to your writing group was every bit as nerve-wracking as jumping off a rope swing into the lake — complaining about the food and then eating way too much of it.
Over the course of the week we tried out different kinds of writing: lyrical essays, personal memoir, and even blogging and op-eds. We talked about midrash and juxtapositions, scripture and poetry. Once we opened Bibles and with our eyes closed, put our fingers on a text, Augustine style, and wrote what came to mind. (How did I end up in 2 Esdras?) Every afternoon was free for working on assignments, napping or reflecting, or in my case logging a few miles on the treadmill (it was way too hot to spend much time outside) and playing music in a quiet practice room. By the end of the week I had no problem spending an hour or more just lying on the grass, listening to birds and looking at clouds.
On the first morning I told my writing group that my goal for the week was to escape from footnotes. Historians are trained to build their ideas on those of others, which means we are very uncomfortable going for more than a paragraph without some kind of outside reference. The more the better, in fact. For us, writing is a slow, deliberate process of crafting an original thought from hours, days, years of reading what other people have written, constructing an argument with nuance and precision, absolutely faithful to the texts that those others left behind. I often think of historical writing like sculpting a block of marble into a statue, one deliberately planned chip at a time.
That means that historians don't normally just sit down and write things, any more than an astronaut would jump out of the mother ship without a tether and a decent supply of oxygen. We stay close to our sources as a matter of respect — and if we were perfectly honest, out of an abundance of personal caution.
Turned out, however, that I had no trouble leaving footnotes behind. In fact, jumping off the cliff on a rope swing was the easiest thing I did all week, fully accomplished before lunch the first day. The real problem, one I shared with the ministers and rabbis in my writing group, was much more complicated. Writing is by its nature anti-social. It requires time and distance apart. And of course, in an age of social isolation and media feeds targeted toward our personal algorithms, it's far too easy to fall into the trap of writing for and about me, me, me. Writing can be the ultimate act of self-indulgence.
In the end my most important reboot had nothing to do with footnotes. It was learning to see writing as a form of compassion, a way of engaging other people with respect, clarity, and vulnerability. That means leaving behind the preachy sermon mode — read this, it will be good for you — and, for the historian-expert in full footnote body armor, accepting the risk of exposure, being willing to be, at least for a little while, a party of one. That takes a lot more courage than most of us realize, not just to be honest and vulnerable, but, as I am learning, to fight against easy distractions, whether it's social media or the pile of oughts and shoulds clamoring from my calendar and smart phone. Somewhere out there, I keep reminding myself, are birds waiting to be listened to, and clouds waiting to be watched.