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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



Tom Griffiths

Inga Clendinnen, an outstanding and imaginative historian, recently confessed that when she asked a class of new history graduates which historians they read for pleasure, they laughed! ‘I knew why they laughed’, she explained sadly. It’s because so many scholars compromise communication with pompous posturing; they are too busy staking out intellectual territory and warding others off it; they are too busy digging in their fields isolating ‘stone-hard, stone-cold facts’ to bother looking up or around; they are so furiously in pursuit of ‘objectivity’ that they delete themselves from their scripts and employ a weird, passionless prose. Clendinnen says that she enjoys reading great historians, like E.P. Thompson, for the same reason she enjoys reading great novelists—they offer an entrée into richly imagined worlds. But, she confesses, there is a difference. For her, when reading non-fiction, the bliss is tempered and intensified by a critical alertness and an undertow of moral implication not present in what she calls ‘the limpid realms of fiction’.1

So, Clendinnen is throwing out a challenge to us. Look how bad, how inward-looking the writing of scholars can be, she says; yet see what heights we, particularly as writers of non-fiction, can reach.

In a marvellous little book entitled The Writing Life, the versatile American author Annie Dillard tells a story about how she learned to chop wood. Once, in order to finish a book, she begged the use of a small cabin which was heated with a wood stove and situated on a remote and sparsely populated island in northern Puget Sound, Washington State. It was a beautiful setting, but all she noticed was the cold. At first she did not know how to split wood. She

set a chunk of alder on the chopping block and harrassed it, at enormous exertion, into tiny wedges that flew all over the sandflat and lost themselves … After a few whacks my alder chunk still stood serene and unmoved, its base untouched, its tip a thorn.2

One night, Annie Dillard had a dream in which she was given to understand how to split wood. ‘You aim, said the dream—of course!—at the chopping block … You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it.’3 You wonder why she is telling this story, until she later reveals it as a parable for writing. I will return to it.

I am interested in the poetics and practicalities of writing. I want to progress from quite general issues about the debilitating and enabling metaphors that govern our writing in universities to more personal stories about the sensualities of writing as an art: What does it feel like to write? What are the sources of good writing? And finally to practical reflections and advice: What do we need to do to write, to make writing a significant and meaningful part of our scholarly lives?


First, let me say something about the disabling conventions of writing in universities, and how we might confront and subvert them.

Judith Brett, an Australian political scientist and a fine, clear writer (see her book, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People), has written a thoughtful and provocative article on ‘The Bureaucratisation of Writing’. She wonders ‘why so few academics are public intellectuals’ and also asks why so few of them are good writers.4 Brett lists three simple preconditions for good discursive prose. They are: a fully imagined audience, a sense of urgency, and something interesting or important to say. The biggest problem with academic writing, she thinks, is achieving the first two. Most do have something important or interesting to say. So what is it that works against them feeling compelled to say it in ways that engage an audience outside their discipline?

Brett argues, and I think she’s right, that the modern bureaucratic university has created an environment where it is difficult to take writing seriously, where to devote time to good writing goes against the grain of the job. The corporatisation of universities and the bureaucratisation of writing and knowledge within the academy, she argues, disconnects the university writer from the two traditional sources of energy for good writing and good books: that is, a fully imagined public, and one’s own subjectivity. In universities, being a writer who seeks a general audience can invite suspicion; you sometimes hear the words ‘popular’ and ‘paperback’ spat out at seminars and selection committees. ‘Mere journalism’ is beneath us. And using the personal pronoun is seen to be self-indulgent and unscholarly. I recently even had to defend the writing of books at my own university; they were evidently seen by some as suspiciously holistic and accessible products. Essays for widely-read newspapers or serious periodicals, however esteemed, are valued much less in the academy than refereed articles for international journals, however obscure. The local, home audience, however large, can be seen as less important than a distant, overseas one, however small. Clear, everyday language can be seen as less scholarly than specialised jargon.

What’s going on here? Universities reward us for writing obscurely for distant, small, specialised audiences made up of people educated exactly as we are! As Brett puts it, we are trained to write continually for the approval only of a disciplinary elite, whether we are students handing in essays, doctoral candidates writing a PhD for two or three examiners, or academics writing only for refereed journals. Listen to her devastating critique of this culture, our culture:

Academic writing is writing that never leaves school, that never grows beyond the judging, persecuting eye of the parent to enter into a dialogue with the society and culture of its time, as an adult amongst other adults, with all the acceptance of mutual imperfection which this implies. Always seeking the approval of a higher authority, the academic writer endlessly defers responsibility. I write in this way because I have to pass the exam, to get my PhD, to get a job, to get tenure, to get promotion. I write like this because it is what they want. I don’t write in the way best suited to what I have to say, or to win people to a cause, to change the world, to humiliate my opponents, to help people understand their lives, to please my readers, or even to please myself.5

So, graduate workshops that place the act of writing itself at the centre of their concerns are radical. They are questioning these hierarchies and pretensions, questioning the twentieth-century university world of social science neutrality, detachment and narrow professionalisation. They forbid us from deferring responsibility. They seek to free us from some of these constraints of our institutional culture, to open our minds to other ways of being scholarly, but they also charge us with the responsibility to find a voice.

Let’s be clear about what this means. We don’t have to be less theoretical. We don’t have to avoid writing for refereed journals. We don’t have to cancel our registration for that specialised overseas conference. We mustn’t be less thorough in our research nor less humble in the face of our subject. But we do have to avoid using language and status to intimidate, obfuscate or exclude. We do have to acknowledge and stop feeling embarrassed by the power of stories. We do have to stop seeing passion and objectivity as mutually exclusive. And we do have to see writing as an essential and primary part of our work.

Some of the metaphors for university writing work directly against this. One is that you ‘write up’. That is, you do all the research, and then you report, you write up. This is the humanities scholar as social scientist. The metaphor is taken directly from the natural and physical sciences, the world of hypothesis and experiment, and it carries with it the implication of detachment and objectivity. That is why you write ‘up’. To ‘write down’ or just plain ‘write’ suggests something that is much more literary and creative, there is some sense of the power of the writer in it, as recorder, as testifier, as interpreter. ‘Writing up’, by contrast, is routine, perfunctory.

The metaphor of ‘writing up’ divides scholarship into two phases, one long, uncertain and exciting—that is, research—and the other short, predetermined and boring—that is, writing. ‘Writing up’ completes research, it ties off ends. It is uncreative. It is not in dialogue with research; it simply reports on it. It is done quickly, unwillingly and last.

What a debilitating metaphor this is for us scholars for whom the role of language in shaping and probing reality is crucial. Of course scientists, too, work with descriptive metaphors all the time; they grapple continually with contingency and uncertainty. But, in the humanities and social sciences, language is both our means and our subject. It’s where you begin, as well as where you end. Let’s talk about writing early rather than writing up.

Another disabling metaphor or word for us is ‘thesis’. ‘Thesis’ suggests something arcane before we have even begun, something limited and specialised that will never see the light of day, something that will only ever be bound and gagged. Publishers shudder at the word. I would prefer to talk about our ‘books’. That’s what we’re writing, that’s what we hope they might be, that’s a word that reminds us that we have to fully imagine an audience.

Another word we have to watch is ‘topic’. It may at first seem a benign little word, but it’s a time-bomb. The problem with ‘topic’ is that it enlists a spatial metaphor. It suggests an enquiry that is discrete, tightly bounded and territorial. It carries with it the implication that you define your topic at the start and stick with it; it suggests that one defines one’s PhD subject by marking out the boundaries of one’s intellectual territory; it suggests that you choose vacant terrain and then constantly boundary-ride to keep it so; it implies that originality is a measure of how virgin is the ground you choose and how deeply you dig it. I utterly reject these implications. Virgin ground is not essential for original research: indeed, a crowded field can be more lively and productive than a vacant one. We should be alert for the relationships between our own work and those of others; the more scholarly conversations we can get into the better. Originality is a many-splendoured thing; it can be measured laterally as well as by depth; it can reside in a scholar’s span or powers of synthesis, or perception of relationships beyond the tilled field or across the fourth dimension of time. And a PhD, any book, is a journey—if you don’t finish up somewhere different to where you began then you probably haven’t learnt much. ‘Journey’ is an enabling metaphor; it is open-minded and open-ended. On a journey, you creatively construct experience. You discover something about yourself as well as the place and society you are travelling through. It is transformative. There is more room for those chief virtues of curiosity and wonder in the idea of a journey.

Experience, for the historian as much as any writer, is the ultimate primary source. I’ve always valued those sayings that emphasise that historians—people who are professionally occupied with the past—must nevertheless engage in especially active ways with the present. ‘Good historians need strong boots’ urged the British socialist historian, R.H. Tawney. ‘I would give trainee historians the chance to travel the world’, declared Theodore Zeldin. ‘I’m an historian—therefore I love life’, announced Lucien Febvre. We all write out of our own experience. There has to be a bit of yourself in the writing. That’s where you start. What do you use for bait to catch the words and ideas? Dillard says you have no choice, and then tells us a story about an Algonquin woman and her baby who were left alone in their winter camp after everyone else had starved. The woman found one small fishhook. It was simple to rig a line, but she had no bait, and no hope of bait. So she took a knife and cut a strip from her own thigh. ‘She fished with the worm of her own flesh and caught a jackfish; she fed the child and herself. Of course she saved the fish gut for bait.’ She and her baby survived. The message of the story is clear: the writer must fish with the worm of her own flesh.6

Dillard uses other powerful metaphors for writing. They are all active and instrumental. Writing is a tool; it is a journey; it is climbing a ladder into the clouds. Your line of words, she says, is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe, a fibre optic. ‘You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory.’7

My own metaphor for historical research, in spite of being another depth metaphor, is at least a fluid and processual one. It is that of dredging a pond. If the world is a deep pond and we live on the surface, swimming so that we can also breathe, then the historian’s job is to dredge the pond, keeping it healthy by continually disturbing the water and its contents. The surface is a busy but—by definition—superficial place, and there is limited room in the limelight at any one time. Things that we once had given favoured attention on the surface later sink into the murky depths, forgotten. Historians dredge, continually dredge. Diving can be scary and hazardous, and you can’t afford to stay down too long. But the quest is compelling: to remember, remind, discover, bringing to the surface half-familiar shapes, disturbing the superficial present with evidence from the depths.

Another disabling word is ‘definitive’. The problem with ‘definitive’ is that it introduces a deadening metaphor; it suggests that your aim is to end debate, whereas it is actually the opposite. Your aim is to start it. Your aim is not to dampen down but to stir up; it is not to exhaust but to enliven, not to bury but to unearth. And one rarely unearths things whole; one has to recognise them, reconstitute them, re-imagine them. ‘Being definitive’ generally means being pedantic and narrowly competitive; it means closing down possibilities rather than opening them up; it means mistaking accuracy for truth; it works against being generous or imaginative or speculative. Remember the poet A.D. Hope’s ‘macabre academic hero’, Dr Budge:

The scabs scratched off by genius, sought with care
Stuck back again earn Doctor Budge a chair;
And now, Professor Budge, his claim made good,
He works like dry rot through the Sacred Wood;
Or like dead mackerel, in a night of ink
Emits a pale gleam and a mighty stink.8

I’m sure Professor Budge’s scholarship was definitive. This scholarly stance also implies that objectivity is only gained through cool, dispassionate detachment, through emotional distance. But let’s believe instead that objectivity comes from breadth of understanding, from humility, from tolerance, and from engagement. The Australian historian Keith Hancock named the three great virtues of an historian as attachment, justice and span, and attachment came first.9

But perhaps the most disabling phrase or metaphor of all is that what we write is ‘non-fiction’. To call our writing ‘non-fiction’ seems to deny its creative, imaginative dimensions; it’s not something, and the something it’s not is that rather wonderful and captivating world of fiction. It’s also a phrase that seems to turn our backs on stories, because stories are so identified with the realm of fiction. But stories are the stuff of history; they are privileged carriers of truth. The American nature writer Barry Lopez reminds us that truth cannot be reduced to aphorism or formula: ‘It is something alive and unpronounceable. Story creates an atmosphere in which truth becomes discernible as a pattern.’10

The ‘non’ in our non-fiction, then, does not need to be a denial or a suppression; rather, it signifies an edge that can sharpen our prose and heighten our sense of danger and wonder. Dillard compares the good writer with the top tennis player—both play the edges, hit up the line. You can’t play too safely, too much within the boundaries, or there’s no game and no challenge; and if you play too much beyond them, you will offend reason and poetry—and you’ll be called out.

Writing true stories is the product of a fascinating struggle between imagination and evidence.11 That struggle constitutes our discipline. I mean ‘discipline’ not just in its academic sense; it is what writing is all about, particularly writing non-fiction. Imagination must work in creative friction with a given world, there are rules as well as freedoms, there are hard edges of reality one must respect. There is a world out there that humbles one, disciplines one. There are silences not of our making. Clendinnen worries away at these silences. Much of what we most want to know about the past we cannot know, she says. Or probably cannot know. ‘Were this fiction, I would know that all things said and left unsaid, all disruptions, were intended to signify. But this is not fiction, and I cannot be sure.’12

It is our job to release reality, enable it to be seen, enable voices and silences to be heard. Let me offer you another metaphor. Writing is a form of sculpture. First one must amass the clay, the raw material of reality, building up the rough form, gathering much more than one can eventually keep. Then begins the careful paring away, the sculpting and moulding, the tweaking out of detail. The final reality emerges, and one could almost believe that it was always there, trapped in the clay, awaiting discovery and rescue. True stories are the best stories. Paradoxically, we must strive to make them believable.

The way you conceive of writing determines how you go about it. So, let’s implement the metaphors, and proceed to the practicalities.


I am now going to consider ways of getting yourself to write. I’m not concerned here with how you write; I’m concerned simply that you write, and that you write early. How do we organise our lives to do this? Where and how does writing happen? There are no right answers to such questions, of course; you have to work out what suits you. All I can offer is some of my own thoughts and experience.

However social and environmental are the sources of writing, I believe that the act itself remains fundamentally and positively lonely. You have to like your own company to be a writer. Writing in public or by committee doesn’t work. Writing is, at heart, very private. I won’t say anti-social, because I’ve been impressing on you how social and outgoing it can be, and I’m using words like performing, and audience and conversation, to express that. But I have to say that good writing happens alone. The writer speaks to the reader with a directness and personal intimacy that is both scary and exhilarating and that is born of solitude.

I have been writing about the country back of Bourke in far western New South Wales. I visited it in company with an artist, Mandy Martin. It was my job to write an essay for the catalogue accompanying her next exhibition of paintings. When we were out in the field together, it struck me how similar were our tasks, but how different our products. She stood in front of her landscape and conjured shapes onto the canvas. She splashed and washed colour about, used a bit of the sand at her feet; she deftly sketched in some detail. This was the underpainting, an urgent and fluent capturing of raw material and impressions which she would later refine. Meanwhile, I was sitting on a log on the banks of the Darling River, doing much the same but with words, writing furiously and indiscriminately, throwing onto the paper snatches of conversation with locals, new words I had learnt, brief descriptions of people I’d met or things I’d observed, preparing the ground for later, more considered writing. But the artist’s creativity was visible and public and social, the dogs and children played around her feet, an impromptu painting lesson for a nine-year-old was conducted on the side, and the artist had something to show, something to be admired, and the product, even in its unfinished state, was propped up on the homestead table. But after my two hours of uninterrupted silence sitting on a log, I stuffed my pages of scrawl into a bag and took them away with me. I collected a strand of Mitchell grass, and a jar of red sand. They sit on my desk at home as I try to turn that scrawl into something that, one day, might find its way back to the homestead table.13

So, writing happens alone, and there is generally a long wait between inspiration and response. You have to be both urgent and patient, urgent enough to get it done and patient enough to await your audience. For big writing tasks, you have to have the focus and sense of occasion to produce something special, but also the stamina and the routine to keep doing it month after month. I find I have to be in a state of controlled panic. Plain panic is no good at all. When it is controlled, it can become an asset, for a short while. It’s like nervousness when you are speaking in public, another sort of performing. Uncontrolled nerves are debilitating; you can’t remember your words or even read a script. But controlled nervousness is a boon, in fact it’s essential. Any performer will tell you this. You need to be keyed up to be properly focussed. The day you worry is the day you are not nervous when you get up to speak in public. It’s the same with writing. The day you worry is the day when writing doesn’t matter enough to be exciting, or when the audience is so unimportant to you that it cannot be imagined, or when the deadline is so flexible that it does not scare you.

So, you need to contrive to be alone, you need to be in a state of controlled panic, and you need to establish this extraordinary state as a routine! Dillard dramatises this hilariously, with stories of her self-imposed exile in lonely beach shacks, her overdoses of coffee and cigarettes, and her reading aloud of poetry during writing breaks. She summarises the problem beautifully:

[The writer] must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not.

For writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours along with a hundred other Zulu warriors, you might be able to prepare yourself to write. If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance that on a certain morning the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals and drinking dubious liquids, you might, when the time came, be ready to write. But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?14

Well, I think the beach shack plan has quite a bit going for it. My wife and I both write, and we plan our calendar to ensure that we each get a few days away on our own to write several times a year. We take it in turns to pack up our notes and books and portable computer and a photograph of the children, the coffee, the wine, and even some food, and go somewhere simple but comfortable—Dillard’s beach shack sounds perfect—and you feel really silly if you’ve put the rest of the family to such inconvenience and then come back with nothing written. It fulfils all the criteria—you’re alone, the blank screen and the brevity of the trip ensures that your panic is barely controlled, and if you subject yourself to this regularly then you’ve made a sort of routine out of the extraordinary.

Coming home is also important. One of the essential requirements of every writer is a sympathetic and constructively critical first reader whose opinion you respect. Relinquishing—and let me dwell on that word—relinquishing your draft to a valued reader helps distance yourself from it. No matter what they say, it temporarily passes the responsibility, it helps you find the energy to re-write it, as you inevitably must do. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also such a relief.

Dillard imagines that every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air, floating thirty feet from the ground. Birds fly under your chair. Your work is to drive the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in mid-air. She describes one of her studies as a pine shed on Cape Cod, eight feet by ten feet: ‘Like a plane’s cockpit, it is crammed bulkhead to bulkhead with high-tech equipment. All it needs is an altimeter; I never quite know where I am.’ ‘Appealing workplaces are to be avoided’, she claims. ‘One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.’15 She pushes her desk against a blank wall where she cannot see from any window. I cannot agree with her; I need a horizon.

One of my favourite historians, Eric Rolls, when at his farm in northern New South Wales, always wrote with his back to a broad window. ‘The imagination works better against a blank wall’, he says. But the sun on his back warms him, reminds him of the outside world he is trying to capture on paper. Of his Silky Oak desk, he says: ‘everything on it knows its place. Words come to it that I am not expecting.’ His desk is like a museum of a distant technological era. On it are a pile of handwritten notebooks, eleven dictionaries and books of words, and a typed outline of the current book. He adds five new pages of writing to the pile each day. Empty blocks of lined A4 paper sit beside him, and the two fountain pens that have written all his books. In front of him is a large, disconcerting pile of letters that need answering. There’s a big splinter of fragrant sandalwood, a tail feather from a Swamp Pheasant, little soapstone turtles from China, a branding iron and two blocks of Mulga.16

Greg Dening writes of his ‘desk overlooking Bass Strait’. He peddles in mid-air looking out to sea. In one of his books he tells us that he expected to see a replica of the Bounty sail past from that desk, one of the ‘Tall Ships’ voyaging to Sydney for Australia’s bicentenary.17 There he was, perched in his coastal eyrie, suspended amongst the gums, waiting for the ship—the ship of his imagination—to float on the horizon as if conjured there by his historical gaze. How much coffee had he been drinking?

Charles Dickens went for a long walk across London every afternoon. He found his stories in the faces of the people he passed in the street. In Paris, he found he couldn’t write. His pen dried up whenever he was stranded from his city, his source.

Where do you work? How do you drive the engine of belief? What is your source? Take careful note of the things that help you write, or that help you feel good about writing, and cultivate them. You need to trick yourself into writing, almost by accident. You need to persuade yourself to write, reward yourself for writing. Don’t wait for the lightning to strike or the light bulb to switch on in your head. Magical things do happen when you write, but they are generally a product of your sustained wrestling with words. So you have to get to it. The inventor Thomas Edison said his genius was ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration. The single thing that most differentiates writers and non-writers is not necessarily that writers are more gifted with words but simply that writers work at it every day through the years of their lives. I sometimes think that, just as the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut is one week, so the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is two drafts.

If you think writing’s hard, then try not writing! Fran Lebowitz worked for twelve years on the first chapter of her next novel. She had a ten-year writer’s block. This is what she had to say in an interview in The Paris Review:

What did you do during those years?

I sulked. Sulking is a big effort. So is not writing. I only realised that when I did start writing. When I started getting real work done I realised how much easier it is to write than not to write. Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you … Not writing is more of a psychological problem than a writing problem. All the time I’m not writing, I feel like a criminal. Actually, I suppose that’s probably an outmoded phrase because I don’t think criminals feel like criminals any more. I feel like criminals used to feel when they felt guilty about being criminals, when they regretted their crimes. It’s horrible to feel felonious every second of the day. Especially when it goes on for years. It’s much more relaxing actually to work.

Still, I don’t get nearly the amount of work done that I read other people do. This is what most interests me in interviews with writers. I’m not interested in the thoughts or ideas of these people. I only want to know how many pages a day they wrote. If I could meet Shakespeare, I would ask: ‘What time did you get up? Do you write at night?’ I don’t know many writers. I don’t have many friends who are writers. But as soon as I meet any, as soon as I can figure out that it’s not too intimate a question to ask them, which is about six seconds after I meet them, I say: ‘How many words do you write a day?’18

How do you measure a task like writing? Writing a book takes so long that you have to break it into manageable, completable sections. You have to feel you’ve achieved your day’s or week’s goal, and then relax, let it go. You can’t maintain a controlled panic for long. Counting words is useful, partly because it reminds you just how small your daily goal is. Thomas Mann was an incredibly productive writer. He wrote a page a day. A page a day, 365 pages a year. That’s a good sized book every year.19 That’s unusual. And don’t forget that some days you throw out what you wrote the day before, and that throwing out their own words is one of the most creative things writers do. Dillard estimates that full-time writers might be lucky to average a usable fifth of a page a day.

I find that writing short essays helps me approach the bigger task. It gets me writing early; it gives me a job I can finish; and it begins my journey towards the book. I also recommend that, if you accept that you need to write early, and that you’re taking a journey rather than filling out a topic, then you need to keep a travel diary. You need to record where you’ve come from. Your story is not only what you are seeing on the way, but how you yourself have changed along the journey. So I think you need to keep a journal of a kind, or else adopt a note-taking system that records the time and place and temper of your notes. Databases can dissipate this context away. But that’s your unique story, that’s your historiography.

Footnotes and references are an essential part of the art. They are sometimes seen as heavily pretentious scholarly baggage. They are sometimes seen as self-justificatory. They are sometimes seen as old-fashioned. But I’m intrigued by the number of readers who dig into them—they recognise them as an archaeology of knowledge, a labyrinthine journey into other possible worlds, other possible visions. Footnotes are supremely postmodern in the way they annotate and sometimes undermine the authorial voice; they splinter the superficiality of the page, the linearity of the narrative. They are hard-copy hypertext, offering opportunities for readers to find their own paths through the same material. They are not boastful but actually humble, for they make one vulnerable; they offer signposts for others to follow; they empower your readers to arrive at different conclusions.

Computers have changed the way we write, and the way we talk about writing. The word processor has freed us up to be more sculptural in our sense of what sort of craft writing is. One can truly shape a manuscript. One is tempted to be more playful and experimental. The wonder of looking at historic literary manuscripts today is to confront their materiality and linearity. Patrick White wrote his novels right through three times. I think the danger of the word processor, with its cut and paste dexterity, is to fool us that we can do without this linearity, continuity and momentum. In the end, the words still have to be read from left to right.

We have focussed right onto the page or the screen now, and this is where I’ve been heading and where I want to end. Counting words, working out what goes above or below the footnote line, putting one word in front of another; this is where you end up if you’ve contrived to be alone, if you’ve committed the time to write early, if you’re peddling at your favourite desk in mid-air with a jar of red sand sitting in front of you—your sympathetic first reader awaits your words, you’re controlling the panic … then the page confronts you. This is where it all happens.

I began with Dillard’s intriguing parable about chopping wood. ‘Who will teach me to write?’ a reader wanted to know of her. The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the page in its purity of possibilities; that page, says Dillard, will teach you to write. ‘There is another way of saying this’, she continues. ‘Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.’20

Have you decided what she means by this? Perhaps it has many meanings. For me, it means: you will discover what you want to say, and how to say it, through the writing process itself. You don’t have to come ready and finished to the page. You are not ‘writing up’. You come to the page prepared to explore, to imagine, to journey. It is your workshop, your office, your chopping block. Your words will be like splintered wood, the casual by-product of your engagement with the page. Good luck!


1     I. Clendinnen, ‘Fellow Sufferers: History and Imagination’, Australian Humanities Review, 1997–98, electronic journal at

2     Dillard, The Writing Life, Pan Books, London, 1990, pp. 41–43. Reprinted by the permission of Russell & Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author. Copyright © 1989 by Annie Dillard.

3     Ibid., pp. 41–43.

4     J. Brett, ‘The Bureaucratisation of Writing: Why So Few Academics are Public Intellectuals’, Meanjin, vol. 50, no. 4, 1991, pp. 513–22; Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, Macmillan, Sydney, 1992.

5     Brett, pp. 521–22.

6     Dillard, The Writing Life, pp. 12–13.

7     Ibid., p. 3.

8     A.D. Hope, Dunciad Minor, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1970, p. 36. Reproduced by arrangement with the licensor, The Estate of A.D. Hope, C/- Curtis Brown (Aust) Pty Ltd. W.K. Hancock describes Budge as a ‘macabre academic hero’ (and quotes from the poem) in his Professing History, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1976, p. 20.

9     Hancock, Professing History, Chapter 1.

10    B. Lopez, Crossing Open Ground, Macmillan, London, 1988, p. 69.

11    Janet McCalman writes superbly about this struggle in ‘Translating Social Inquiry into the Art of History’, Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 1995–96, pp. 4–15.

12    Clendinnen, ‘Fellow Sufferers’.

13    It did. The essay, ‘The Outside Country: An Elemental History’, is published in M. Martin et al., Watersheds: The Paroo to the Warrego, Mandy Martin/Goanna Print, Canberra, 1999, pp. 39–54. The exhibition and publication were launched in Swan Hill, Mildura, Bathurst and Newcastle.

14    Dillard, The Writing Life, pp. 46–47. Reprinted by the permission of Russell & Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author. Copyright © 1989 by Annie Dillard.

15    Ibid., p. 26.

16    E. Rolls, Doorways: A Year of the Cumberdeen Diaries, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1989, pp. 145–47.

17    G. Dening, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 4.

18    An extract from this interview was published in the Age, 13 November 1993, under the heading ‘On Not Writing’. Reproduced courtesy of The Wylie Agency, Inc.

19    I have drawn this example from Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 14.

20    Ibid., p. 59.

Cite this chapter as: Griffiths, Tom. 2009. ‘The poetics and practicalities of writing ’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 1.1–1.14.

© Copyright 2009 Tom Griffiths All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath