Writing in Chunks

Confession: I have not been writing this book in chapters. I have been writing it in chunks.

We always imagine other historians sitting down, calmly and coolly at their desks, putting all the documents in the right order, and starting to write. I actually did that with my first book, but there was a secret: I was working with FBI files, and they all had numbers. The numbers more or less sequenced the narrative for me. I could then use colored post-its to mark out various themes (“gender,” “the state,” “kidnapping,” and so on.) Even when I went to archives not organized by J. Edgar Hoover — the Department of Justice, the FDR LIbrary — there really wasn’t that much to collect, and it all went together pretty easily.

Not this time. My files (paper and virtual, since I switched midway through the research) are just crazy. There are the archives of about eight different radical feminists, who all wrote to each other, so their papers are in each others’ collections. There are half a dozen feminist organizations and one Christian conservative group. There are the political archives: two Presidents with, conservatively, about thirty relevant aides and cabinet members  between them. There are the oral histories I have done; the television shows (mostly Phil Donahue); there are the oral histories at the Miller Center. There are the things people just give me. They do. They just walk out of crowds and hand me documents; they mail me padded envelopes; they send me scans.

To put it mildly, these sources not only resist chronology, once you start using them all together it can be really confusing. It can even be difficult to have a coherent sense of what happened, our most basic responsibility as historians, much less imagine a delightful narrative that is going to hook a reader.

So what I started doing was writing up documents, encounters, and events one at a time, with topic sentences, footnotes and everything.  Sometimes the chunk is as short as a paragraph; sometimes as long as five pages. For example, in 1973, when the Women’s Studies program was first establishing itself at the University of Minnesota, Robin Morgan agreed to come out to do a big event that gave the program national visibility. Morgan’s visit was intended to send a signal to administrators that the program had national significance, and could draw an important movement theorist. The Morgan visit is part of the foundation I am laying for my argument that there was a reason Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s campaign to combat pornography as sex discrimination was appealing to progressives in Minneapolis. The feminist community in the Twin Cities was radical, and extremely activist already (HT Anne Enke.)  Bringing Dworkin as a visitor, and hosting the course she taught on pornography with MacKinnon was not only part of a strategy in Women’s Studies to continue raising their profile, it was also a way of continuing to cultivate strong ties to the feminist community in Minneapolis.  That community had been very active in trying to restrict pornography in the Twin Cities for about a decade prior to MacKinnon and Dworkin being hired by the city council to write the anti-pornography civil rights ordinance (HT Pamela Butler‘s essay in this edited collection.)

The newspaper report of Morgan’s visit is one of many documents scattered around that I will use to lay this trail to the beginning of the ordinance campaign in 1983. However, I’m not altogether sure where it belongs. In the section of the book that is focused on the campaign for the ordinance? Maybe. Chronologically, it belongs at the beginning of the book, when most of the action is properly in New York, California and Washington D.C., not in Minnesota (“Minneapolis feminists gathered in that close, crowded room, were waiting to be called on by the dashing lesbian poet. They could not have known that in a decade…..“)

You see the problem: I don’t know yet, which is the case with a lot of my material. If I wait to fit all the puzzle pieces together, the writing would be too. slow. for. words. Therefore, I just write up the document. It takes about fifteen or twenty minutes, and allows me to engage more deeply with the primary material as narrative and as evidence for larger arguments. The chunk of writing about the Morgan visit currently reads like this:

            When radical feminist Robin Morgan visited the women’s studies program at the University of Minnesota on June 1, 1973 the crowd was so dense that her talk had to be delayed to find a room large enough to accommodate over 500 people. Even for “a campus accustomed to heavy appeals by persons of widely varying persuasions,” the crowd was engaged and argumentative. For some of those present, Morgan “was a guru, to others a demagogue.” Editor of the best-selling Sisterhood is Powerful, Morgan had brought some of the founding documents of the movement to a mass audience; that night, she made a point of distinguishing between her project, which was revolution, and the gradualism of women’s rights. Without naming names, Morgan expressed skepticism about the political work being done in state and federal governments on behalf of gender equality. What was need was not equality, but a fundamental revolution. The presence of “women’s rightists,” as she called them, was “not necessarily bad,” but Morgan worried about “a sell out,” the “danger that women’s rightists will settle for crumbs.” Already, liberal women had “achieved moderate success with some extremely moderate measures, but they’re galloping their way to tokenism.” Revolution and reform were very different things, she warned the crowd; “tokenism filtering down from the top” produced a very different outcome from “grassroots feminism filtering up.”[1]

I then label the document with the date, backwards (this is important), and with a couple of keywords. So the label for the piece of writing below is 1973_06_01_Morgan_Minnesota_WOST. I then plunk it in a file folder which I have already formatted  (View –>Arrange –> By Name), and all of my writing lines itself up chronologically which can then be successfully assembled into chapters. Other material about the Morgan visit can either be woven into this one or other chunks can can be nestled up to the first one by putting a,b,c at the end of the filename. I can also search key words should I wish to use the episode out of chronology.

Ta da.  Here’s a screen shot of the folder:

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 10.55.57 PM

I’m not sure how many documents are in here: perhaps a quazillion.So far I have put together an introduction and four draft chapters (out of twelve) from these chunks, so I think my method is working.

[1] Carol Lacey, “Radical Feminist Seeks True Women’s Liberation,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 1 1973.

One thought on “Writing in Chunks

  1. Pingback: Random Pieces of Writing Fun - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Comments are closed.