U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On The Writing Process

As I sit here nursing a head cold, I find myself thinking back to a promise I made to a former professor of mine, Sonya Huber. Currently, she’s teaching at Fairfield University, but before that she was part of the Writing and Linguistics Department at Georgia Southern University (where I received my BA in Creative Writing). Just a few days ago, I noticed that she answered the call to a challenge for bloggers across the web, titled simply “Writing Process.” She tagged me, along with a few other bloggers, to continue the challenge. I’m glad to take it on, as I think history blogging offers its own set of challenges, albeit ones not too different from anyone else on the web. I’m also glad to answer the call, as Professor Huber and others in creative writing at Georgia Southern had a major influence on my writing style today (any faults are, of course, merely my own personal weaknesses).

My bookshelf at home. Essentially, you could write an intellectual bio of me from this and be pretty spot on.

My bookshelf at home. Essentially, you could write an intellectual bio of me from this and be pretty spot on.

Each week, I consider what particular topics have peaked my interest. Usually, it’s something related to either African American intellectual history or the intellectual history of the American South. Often, those two topics overlap and offer me the chance to ponder some big questions about the last fifty years of American history. Other blog posts, however, are born out of recent events—this year, all too often, I’ve found myself writing obituaries to big figures in the humanities. And there have also been moments when, in intellectual flights of fancy, I step out of my comfort zone and decide to write about topics that have long been on my mind, but until now have not had a forum in which to discuss them. I also make sure to set aside time on Saturday afternoons to write—a time blocked away from my weekly school readings or dissertation research (although sometimes they can blend together).

So far I’ve only talked about how I select topics—not necessarily how I write about them. The setting for where I write matters. I often choose the first or second floor of the Thomas C. Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina. Why those floors? Well, the first floor contains a good chunk of periodicals, including such magazines as Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The Progressive, The National Review, and The New Republic. These magazines have provided me plenty to work with when considering intellectual and political history since the late 1960s. My post on reparations, for example, could not have been done without ready access to Dissent magazine from 1969, with its debate about reparations demands from James Forman providing much to think—and write—about.

The second floor of the library houses the bulk of books on African American history. I sometimes just wander through the stacks, considering the questions that the books beg me to ask about history, historiography, and the very act of being a black American scholar in the year 2014. Sometimes I’ll even grab a book or two off the shelf—maybe I’ll check it out later or, at the very least, I’ll browse the footnotes or endnotes for more curiosities to read in the future.

Just being in a library—usually a calm, quiet space—provides me the space I need to write my posts for the Society of US Intellectual Historians. Days like today, however, force me to stay home. After all, a cold with heavy rain outside isn’t conducive to traveling to and from the library. So, for those times I write from home, I try to keep things as quiet as possible—with the exception of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Mozart accompanying me as a writing partner.

I’d also say that, when it comes to the S-USIH blog, the writing process doesn’t end with posting that day’s short essay. Checking and responding to comments, I believe, are an essential part of writing for any blog, but especially once like ours. Respondents, often historians but always individuals with a passionate interest in intellectual history, remind me of why I love to write for this blog in the first place: the exchange of ideas here, on Twitter, and on Facebook, about these posts keeps my mind sharp.

I certainly welcome others to engage in the “Writing Process” challenge. I always shy away from actively tagging people in activities like this, but I just wanted to offer my personal story of how I write for S-USIH from week to week. I think, in particular, my fellow bloggers here would have some interesting stories to share about their own writing process. Not that there’s any pressure at all.