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‘Fit To Be Plated’: Reflections on Archives and Writing

August 12, 2012

Running back and forth from archive to home to café to office makes me think of a conversation that I had with some fellow graduate students in Dushanbe two weeks ago. What were my strategies with going into archives, they wondered? Does it make any sense to try to write academic prose shortly after seeing stuff in archives? I’m far from an expert, I certainly make mistakes, and my methodological inclinations (more intellectual history than diplomatic history, which I would think in a sense demands more repetitive hunts for individuals memoranda in Washington, London, Moscow, etc.) might give me certain advantages or disadvantages compared to other historians.

It’s easy to get excited diving into archives, but at some – perhaps especially Soviet ones – are easy to get lost among the riches

That said, I’m a fan of writing up my (preliminary!) thoughts quickly, in prose form, not long after I’ve looked at documents closely and photographed them. While it’s important to make the most out of what can be expensive, or, in the case of scholarships, privileged travel to far-off locations, sometimes I think that the temptation I see among some scholars to photograph absolutely everything can be crippling. Particularly so in the case of Soviet history, where, as one professor of mine pointed out, the issue is not lack of documents (you could easily spend thousands of lifetimes reading everything in the Dushanbe archives alone), but rather analytical approaches. Rather than diving in to order everything, photograph, or write up everything, I’ve tried to take some time out this week to ask myself what I hope are bigger questions: why is this approach (as opposed to that one) interesting? What organizations or institutions would I need to look at to get at those questions? No matter how much we bill ourselves as Promethean giants of research, the fact is we spend the majority of our waking hours neither writing nor taking notes nor photographing stuff. Some reflection on why you’re taking those thousands of photographs is probably a good idea.

Beyond that, as far as writing is concerned, I try to think of myself sometimes as a chef who has to be both a short-order cook and a long-order cook. Sometimes, there are paragraphs or sections of chapters where I’m quite explicitly not drawing on some crazy document I’ve found in an archive. What I need is a simple, concise, clear, and, hopefully interesting block of prose that can get me from Point A to Point B. I want fried eggs and bacon on Wonder bread, not the gruyere quiche with a croissant and quince jelly. Some sections of writing need to get cranked out like that, with the expectation that they’ll be improved on in further drafts. However, in the end I want my dissertation as a whole to be that fancy dish that you reserve for special occasions. That requires thought about how chapters connect with other chapters, internal structure, and trying to see connections of portions within chapters with internal sections of other chapters: precisely, in other words, the kinds of questions that can lead one to crippling writer’s block.

My usual facial expression and outfit when contemplating chapter revisions

The creative dynamic between the two kinds of writing and editing – between being the short-order cook and the restauranteur who has designed the entire menu with care and thoughtfulness – is that sometimes short-order dishes morph, with enough practice, revision, and care, into something bigger. Many of the dishes that we treat as haute cuisine began as everyday peasant dishes. One man’s humble stew, with enough care thrown into presentation and the quality of the ingredients, becomes a handsome and delicious pot-au-feuPart of my writing philosophy depends on this tension between being the slave-driver of a hell’s kitchen on the one hand, but then coming back, again and again, to those original dishes I created to turn them into something that’s fit to be plated – most immediately, in the form of a handed-in dissertation, but also hopefully to your future voluntary readers, too.

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