Monday 2 February 2015

Crumbs in the wilderness – Gillian Polack

I’ve come later than usual this month to writing my History Girls post because I’ve been immersed in the copy-editing stage of a project. This is the moment where, as a historian, I doubt everything I’ve ever known.
The trouble is that as a historian, I never actually know much. I have an infinite number of links to information that informs my understanding, but they have to be checked and rechecked and reinforced every single time I want to make an interpretation. I say this quite comfortably most of the time, as if it’s not quite real, but the truth hits me during copy-editing. My historian-mind is a perpetual clock where the mechanism is questions and the dial is my toolset of techniques for demonstrating possible answers using various sources and methods.
How I explain this when I’m asked in public places (which I will be, in March, at the Historical Novel Society’s first Australasian conference) is that the interface between the historian and the past is ever-changing and that history is the narrative we use to explain things to everyone (including to ourselves). I also say that it’s comfortable and just happens to be the way I think. At moments like this, though, there’s no comfort in it whatsoever. I’m lost in a very particular wilderness.
When I’m researching, I’m entirely safe. Everything is recorded on bits of paper and on computer files and there are notes that link one to the other and if there’s a point that lacks a link, I hunt until I can establish one or I lose the point or rethink the argument. I feel safe when I’m at the research stage, because of all those fluttering bits of paper.
Just now, though, I realised that my documentation contains an element of Hansel and Gretel. Those bits of paper are my guide through the woods. They shift unaccountably as the wind blows throw them and animals wander over them, but they’re always there, leading me to where I need to go. They take me from my hypothesis, safely to sources, and then safely back again to the point where I can write and eventually produce a printed paper where I say wise and wonderful things. On that printed paper there is a plethora of critical apparatus (mainly footnotes and bibliography) to lead me back to my paper trail whenever I need. This is fine when I write a purely academic paper, like the one I did for the journal Rethinking History last year. 

It’s not so fine when I write something for the general public, because the trail is breadcrumbs and it gets gobbled up and doesn’t appear in the final. That’s what I’m doing right now. A copy-edit of something that doesn’t have a full critical apparatus. I’m working with breadcrumbs rather than paper and those breadcrumbs keep getting eaten.
I'm not lost in the forest, but it feels as if I am. I look at my own words and ask myself "Was I right? Surely not" and I can only check up on what I remember and what I remember isn't even close to being the whole trail I've walked so many times.
My copy-edit, the one I make before I send anything to a publisher, is the moment when I realise those breadcrumbs have been eaten. I can’t trace every single little thing back to its source. I can only trace those things my fallible memory wants to recall and, even then, I can’t be certain that I’m remembering correctly. I get a terrible, terrible sense of being lost.
Novels are easier. Novels always use breadcrumb trails. I expect the trail to disappear and to find myself somewhere new and unexpected. Now that Langue[dot]doc 1305 has been out for months, I can look  at my research photos and given them a whole new story. Once the story is told, it gently disassociates itself from its development and it stands alone.
Sometimes novels use breadcrumb trails and nice signposts at appropriate points (those discussions at the end of a book concerning sources are wonderful signposts), but they don’t and can’t and never should be able to point out every single bit of the research. Even when they test a thesis, that thesis is secondary to the story. They’re all about strolling through the woods, or finding the gingerbread house. They’re never about telling other people every footstep of the way. 
If they were about the same type of journey as the historian makes, they’d be dull. Imagine tweeting “I am Gretel. I’m putting my right foot forward and now my left and oh, look, my right again.” Imagine this for a two mile walk. 
It makes sense to chronicle the moment when a branch whips across Gretel’s face and stings so hard she draws a breath. She refuses to cry, and she steps on bravely. Moments that add to the story need chronicling, not every step.
To be honest, I don’t note every step as a historian, either, I just write down a lot more of them in a lot more detail so that I can retrace the path and my mood and what I ate and when I argued with my travel companion and when my shoes hurt and how many steps this way and what direction the wind came from: there's a lot more detail and it's not always dramatic or useful for emotional development. This is because emotional development and drama are not high priorities in a history. It’s not so much that there are a lot more moments to footnote in a history than there are in a novel. The reason for chronicling is different.

This is because novels (even mine, which are research-based novels and full of prickly theories) must tell a story. Or many stories. They exist on this earth for a very different reason to scholarly work, even when there are chunks of overlap between one and the other.
A little while ago I did my copy-edit for the cursed novel (which will be out about the time I post next, so watch this space) and I didn’t tear my hair out and mourn my loss of compass the way I’m doing tonight. 
What my personal copy-edit did for that novel was bring the story in together more tightly and make it easier for the reader to follow by making the style and my personal writing mannerisms just that much more consistent. (My editor’s take on it will reach my desk this week, and I’m looking forward to it.) There’s no Hansel and Gretel lost in the forest with fiction, because the whole story is almost always on that page. What I took notes about ten years ago is irrelevant. The narrative doesn’t need an apparatus to prove it’s accurate or a good story: it does that all by itself. Verisimilitude is more important than precision.
Two big copy-edits in the one week, and one I’ll be glad to be past and the other I really want to reach: the different emotions come from the type of narrative. One takes me further and further from the work that sparked it and the other takes me closer and closer to the story I want to tell. History and fiction are quite different types of writing, even when the fiction contains much history.


Clare Mulley said...

I like the breadcrumbs metaphor - still laying mine, though feel more wicked mother than brave child, as digress so much am never sure the crumbs will lead to the right footnote...

Gillian Polack said...

I know that feeling, too. I love that time, for it's when you learn what the story's going to be.