The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

On not writing (again)

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I started writing this blog because I could not write anything else.

Struggling with the white noise of not writing I looked for a way out by starting small and starting often. In the repetitive regularity of blogging I hoped to find discipline and inspiration. Putting words on screen to build habits, rhythms, ideas, and momentum – confidence that I could write something big again.

It worked, I guess.

I wrote blogs about what it was like to not write and about what it was like to write a book from behind the scenes. In sharing my own practices as a historian – in sharing my own fuck-ups and mistakes, dilemmas and unanswered questions – I learned from others who shared their own practices in similar ways.

I wrote blogs and then I wrote a book. If nothing else, Prince of Tricksters is evidence of what The Trickster Prince has meant for my working life. In ways that I still haven’t quite worked out, this blog was the terrain on which that book came into being.

There is something to be said about the ways in which social media is reshaping our working practices as historians. Perhaps I should say it.

And then the words dried up, and once again I found myself not writing.

It was 10 August when I last wrote something for this blog. It is November now, and for months I have not been able to open up my own website let alone add anything to it. What was I afraid I might find – silence, the revealing traces of no words, no ideas, nothing to say?

For now, at least, I have done all I can with the book. It is someone else’s problems, and all I can do is check how they have set my words to paper and become impatient and tetchy waiting for it to take material form between two covers.

I meant to write another book this summer, but could not find the words.

I lost them somewhere on the M1 – or maybe it was the M180 – shuttling to and from Scunthorpe to spend time with my Dad while he waited for a triple heart bypass, and with my Mum, while she waited with him. There isn’t much space for words and ideas when you are scared and the worry only stops when you are too tired to feel or think.

Life gets in the way, and that is how it should be: some things – many things – are more important than history.

I wanted to write, but could not find the words. Perhaps I had nothing to say – the possibility of ideas and inspiration was overwhelmed by the frenetic heat and light of history in the digital age.

At some point along the way, I fell out of love with history.

Rather than a consolation and a solace, a passion and a provocation, making history turned into something that left me cold at best, that fucked me right off at worst. It does not reflect well on me that I lost sight of the creative imagination and intellectual generosity of those around me. What have I seen instead? Those who parse the knowledge we produce together into the pursuit of their own career and reputation; those who dismiss rather than think constructively and collectively – who destroy ideas rather than build them up. No longer have I found excitement in the exchange of ideas, retreating back into the here and now.

Those people are few and far between, however.

Full circle, I have come back to not writing and the ferocious self-scrutiny of blank screens, blank pages, blank minds. Now where do I go?

Back onto the bike to look for ideas on the road – it is no coincidence that the words have dried up at the same time as the miles. Back into the seminar room to find inspiration and energy from the creative historical thinking of my students – in thinking together about British culture in the 1920s and 1930s I can feel the excitement returning. Back to the blog – starting small as a way of stopping not writing.

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9 comments on “On not writing (again)

  1. conviction19c
    November 9, 2015

    know the feeling!

  2. edpodesta67
    November 9, 2015

    Fantastic post – and one that I really relate to. I can’t write until I have read, and oddly this doesn’t just mean ‘until I have read something to do with the thing that I want to write about’. Whilst this ‘cure’ is probably about as reliably effective as drinking water backwards from a glass is for curing hiccups, brick walls like these make me turn to something completely different – usually fiction. I’m just finishing a couple of textbooks for schools, and ‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker helped me get going with one about Restoration England. This is ironic, as ‘Restoration’ by Rose Tremain sustained me whilst I was in the doldrums with the one I wrote about Italian Unification. London During the Second World War will be done by the end of the month, and currently I’m reading ‘Tepper isn’t Going Out’, a novel about parking spaces.

  3. The Trickster Prince
    November 9, 2015

    Thank you. I’m exactly the same with reading and writing — I need something to start my head moving through words and getting a sense of how they link together.

  4. chrysaliswithaview
    November 9, 2015

    Yes, life is far more important, because it is the things we take time to do, enjoy, or miss that will be our past one day, and when it is past, all you can do is look back and either be glad, or be sad. I hope this is not cruel, but I always find comfort of a kind when someone is honest about having derailed and not being sure how to get back on track. It is a very human thing. I hope you find ways to enjoy the journey back to where you feel productive again.

  5. naz
    November 24, 2015

    Thanks to you, I found inspiration in studying MODERN (key word) British history. You really inspire the students and I hope they (the new ones, sob sob) can inspire you too. Keep going Matt, you are a fantastic historian – the words will come!!

    p.s.(I read notche religiously, thank you)

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