I’ve mentioned in another post that I tend to write in a question-driven manner. I like to explore issues, controversies, and weirdnesses, and figure out what makes them tick and how they move.
But, of course, that raises the problem of shape. What does a cohesive project look like if it’s not moving from point A to B? I went back to my method books to look for the answer, and I found it in John Law’s Aircraft Stories.
Aircraft Stories is a collection of tightly related stories/essays about a miltary project that was cancelled back in the 60s. It covers decision-making procedures, the aesthetics of science, the culture of construction, and the way by which a single object, like an aircraft, takes on multiple meanings. So, it’s a lot of stories grown “alongside one another” as Law says, as though he tacked them all up on a wall, stood back, and wrote about the coolest stuff he saw.
In fact, that’s basically what he did, albeit more discerningly. He calls this approach “pinboard method” in that it’s a way of seeing how things hang together, even if they don’t follow immediately one after the other. It’s a way of looking at all the pieces of the story or object as equal, without anything being exalted supreme or, more dangerously, relegated to mere detail. It’s a way of viewing everything as important, even the stuff that went wrong or fell out of favor or got erased.
Especially that stuff.
Because in the end it’s a way of telling stories that don’t require winners–stories that exist in flux and encourage us to live our lives in a similar way, without feeling beholden to a grand narrative or a central theme. Within this method, things are allowed to be non-coherent and contradictory, which highlights the sheer amount of effort it takes to make things look coherent, singular, and powerful while pretending they are not also restrictive, dangerous, and exclusionary.
I’m not sure how I missed it–except that when an expert does a sleight of hand trick, you’re not suppose to see–but I got all the way to the last chapter of the book, to a series of boxes recapping the stories he’d told, before I went OH SHIT, this WHOLE BOOK was an exercise in pinboard method. He was showing me how to do it all along.
I freaked out a bit.
And then I started writing.
Now, I am not nearly as sly as John Law. I imagine he writes everything with a wry smile and a twitch of his nose, like an academic Robin Hood puncturing the status quo with motley arrows.
But I am equally as interested in showing people how to make use of methods that will benefit their work, and the field of history as a whole. I am a teacher, through and through.
So, my writing has taken on a distinctly curricular tone. A sort of “here’s what I’m doing, here’s why I’m doing it, and if you dig it, here’s how you can do it, too” approach.
As a result, my dissertation is finally, FINALLY coming back to life for me. It suddenly feels more active, more useful, more accessible. And I’m actually enjoying myself as I work on it for the first time in a very long time.
It also has humor and clarity that it didn’t have before, because I’m writing as though I’m speaking to a classroom of intelligent, questing students who I must first interest in order to educate.
It’s more genuine, more meaningful, more earnest.
It’s more me.