I am not the kind of writer who derives pleasure from the physical act of writing. When I sit down in front of my computer screen (I rarely write in any other way) I waste a lot of time procrastinating. I stare out the window, surf the Internet, fetch myself another glass of orange juice, anything to postpone the dreaded task of actually writing.
So why do I write? The obvious answer is that it is the way I earn a living. The more elevated explanation is that writing helps me to think—and is the way I best communicate, not only with other people, but also with myself.
Writing is the way I organize and refine my ideas about a subject I have researched as a historian or witnessed as a journalist. It is not until I hammer out the words on the keyboard that I see everything in context and test the theories that have been spinning around in my head. It is at this moment that I pull the results of my research together and form them into a coherent narrative.
A good example is my forthcoming book, Six Months in 1945, on the period between the Yalta conference and the bombing of Hiroshima. The physical act of writing forced me to make sense of the bewildering rush of events that accompanied the fall of Nazi Germany and the fateful encounter of America and Russia, in the heart of Europe. It was then that I understood that the Cold War actually began during this six-month period, despite the best intentions of the principals (FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman.)
Above all, writing is a miraculous form of communication. One of my journalistic role models when I started out was the British reporter Nicholas Tomalin, who was killed by a Syrian rocket during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Tomalin defined the reporter’s “required talent” as the “creation of interest,” explaining that a journalist “takes a dull, or specialist, or esoteric situation, and makes newspaper readers want to know about it.” Unlike university professors, journalists do not have a captive audience. We know we have to work hard to capture, and retain, an audience.
The trick, of course, is to do this without distorting the facts, and educate rather than titillate. It is tempting to try to create interest by hyping the story, filling your writing with superlatives such as “first,” “greatest,” “unprecedented,” ignoring the nuances that complicate the story. But it is much more satisfying to share the subtleties and complications with your readers. It is precisely the evidence that does not fit into the pre-cooked formulas that makes the research and writing process so interesting and rewarding.
In some ways, I find writing history books easier than daily journalism. This may be because I feel less constrained by the conventions of the trade, and am not looking over my shoulder so much. I like to tell stories with vivid characters, exotic locales, and an exciting, well-defined plot. They must also have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Academics can be condescending about narrative history, but I find that telling the story in chronological fashion is the best way to explain what actually happened—and to keep your readers turning the page which is, after all, the point of the entire exercise.
(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly, August 17 2012.)