Note: Links to books are affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you purchase books through these links, I’ll make a small commission, which helps me keep Drafting the Past going. Thanks for supporting our guests and the podcast! You can also support Drafting the Past by becoming a monthly contributor via Patreon.
In this episode, I spoke with environmental historian Dr. Adam Sowards. Adam is a historian and writer whose work focuses on the histories of the environment, public lands, the American West, and much more. He has published four books, as well as one edited volume. His most recent book, Making America’s Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands, was published earlier this year. Adam has also regularly written for public audiences, everything from pieces in the the Los Angeles Times and Slate to personal essays in literary journals. From 2018 to 2020, he also wrote a column for High Country News called “Reckoning with History.” We spoke about the new directions in Adam’s career, how he thinks about public writing as an extension of teaching, and more.
BOOKS BY ADAM SOWARDS
- Making America’s Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022)
- An Open Pit Visible from the Moon: The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest (University of Oklahoma, 2020)
- The Environmental Justice: William O. Douglass and American Conservation (Oregon State University Press, 2009)
- United States West Coast: An Environmental History (ABC-CLIO, 2007)
- Idaho’s Place: A New History of the Gem State, edited by Adam Sowards (University of Washington Press, 2014)
MENTIONED IN THE SHOW
- Adam’s recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times
- Adam’s essay “Submerged Stories, Breaching History,” published in Wild Roof Journal
- Zotero, a bibliographic management software
- Scrivener, which Adam uses for composition
- Read Adam’s former column at High Country News, “Reckoning with History”
- Subscribe to Adam’s newsletter, Taking Bearings
- Michelle Nijhuis, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
- Jonathan Thompson, Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands
- Books by Rebecca Solnit
- Books by Helen MacDonald.
- E.B. White, Essays of E. B. White
- Books by James Baldwin
- Books by John McPhee
- Rebecca Solnit, “How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit,” Lit Hub
- Clint Smith, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
Kate Carpenter 0:00
Hey out there in Drafting the Past world. Believe it or not, there are just a few episodes left in this season of Drafting the Past before I take a quick break to bring you a great new season in 2023. In the meantime, I’m putting together some bonus episodes and I would like to feature you. If you’d like to be included in a bonus episode of Drafting the Past, go to draftingthepast.com, click “send voicemail,” and leave me a message telling me who you are, and some of the best writing advice you’ve ever received. Okay, on to this week’s episode.
Adam Sowards 0:36
If writing is what you want to do, and I mean, you can write for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want people to read you, you write, you submit, you pitch. You get it out there and you keep doing it.
Kate Carpenter 0:53
This is Drafting the Past, a podcast devoted to the craft of writing history, and I’m your host, Kate Carpenter. This week, I spoke with environmental historian Dr. Adam Sowards.
Adam Sowards 1:06
I’m happy to be here. Thanks, Kate.
Kate Carpenter 1:08
Adam is a historian and writer whose work focuses on the histories of the environment, public lands, the American West, and much more. He has published four books, as well as one edited volume. His most recent book, Making America’s Public Lands: The contested History of Conservation on Federal Lanes, was published earlier this year. Adam has also regularly written for public audiences, everything from pieces in the the Los Angeles Times and Slate to personal essays in literary journals. From 2018 to 2020, he also wrote a column for High Country News called “Reckoning with History.” We spoke about the new directions in Adam’s career, how he thinks about public writing as an extension of teaching, and more. Here’s my conversation with Adam Sowards.
Adam Sowards 1:54
I guess I can look way back into secondary school. And I guess even before that, I worked on school papers when I was a kid growing up, I did not do that when I went to college, though, deciding that I was a little too shy and didn’t want to talk to people I didn’t know. So I thought I’d study history and the people I needed to talk to would be essentially dead. And that was sort of one of the one of the reasons for the pathway I went down. I started doing history, though, fairly seriously early on. I was fortunate enough to have a National Endowment for the Humanities grant between my junior and senior year of college. And that led to a publication. So that was really fortunate. And I was able to get some publications out of my master’s thesis. And then I guess I was off and running, doing the typical academic sort of things and you know, getting scholarly articles published, and then eventually books published. At some point in my professor’s career, I decided it’d be interesting to write for other sorts of audiences. I don’t remember exactly how that happened, or exactly when it happened. Although I do think it was probably after I received tenure, where there’s a little bit of freedom that comes to us. And, as most, as is the case in most things, a little bit of success leads to a little more success and more opportunities. So once I started doing that, I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed it, I think because the audience was different and wider. And I think at heart, I’m a teacher first. And all of a sudden my classroom grew. It wasn’t the 20 or 40 people in the classroom, it was potentially much larger than that. And not that many years ago, I had a sabbatical. And I felt liberated to try new things like writing in the first person. And so I moved from sort of writing traditional history to writing history for a broader audience. And then next thing I knew I was doing writing in the first person and writing personal essays, and now I’m doing all of those things maybe at once. So that’s a little bit how, what the trajectory of my career as a writer has been?
Kate Carpenter 4:12
Now, are you still working as a professor?
Adam Sowards 4:14
I am not. I officially retired, although I’m awfully young. So retirement seems like the wrong word. But new family priorities took me away from my old job where I was for almost two decades at the University of Idaho. I’m officially an emeritus faculty member now. And I’m open to opportunities and seeing what comes next in life.
Kate Carpenter 4:36
Let’s get into the sort of practical side of your writing. So when and where do you like to do your writing?
Adam Sowards 4:42
All the time? Well, that’s not true. It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m working on a more academic, more historical based project, I’m usually working at home in my home office. And I have found as I’ve aged that I don’t work in the evening very well. And in fact, by late afternoon, I’m not doing so great. So my best writing usually is in the morning. Although not, that’s not always the case. But that’s, that’s usually when it happens. When I’m out and about and searching for inspiration from the landscape or an encounter in a town, I can write right then and there, having a notebook with me, writing longhand, sometimes, I will write in the morning, almost the very first thing I’ll do, get up, get a cup of coffee and write in a notebook. Sometimes, most of the time, the vast majority of the time that goes nowhere. But occasionally there’ll be a line or a paragraph that is worth returning to, and building out into something larger.
Kate Carpenter 5:50
Besides a pen and paper, are there other tools you use as part of your writing process?
Adam Sowards 5:56
When I’m in an archive, I usually take photographs of the documents that I’m looking at. And I keep track of them through an Excel spreadsheet, usually pretty well. And, and there, I have all the finding aid information. So I can find those documents again, but also will jot a few notes as I’m going through them at that point. I use Zotero some, although not to its fullest extent, I think that it has a lot more power than I’ve ever used. And in recent years, I’ve mostly used Scrivener to compose, although it is just for me, it’s just a composition tool. Once I get it kind of a draft firmed up, I’ll go into Microsoft Word and do that sort of thing.
Kate Carpenter 6:44
I’m curious a little bit about your process, I am guessing that it’s different depending on the type of thing you’re writing. But you know, sort of where in the research process do you start writing? How do you approach a piece?
Adam Sowards 6:56
You’re right that it differs depending on what I’m what I’m working on. Usually, not always, but usually I know what I’m working on. I have a project now that it keeps morphing and changing. And so I don’t know how to describe that process very well. When I’m in an archive, doing that sort of research, sort of basic outlines of the story start to appear, you start to see names repeated. So you start to figure that out. I may jot some things down, some outlines, some ideas that occurred to me at that point, but I don’t really start working while I’m still in the archive. I’ll wait till I get home. Deadlines really help encourage me to start working. And occasionally I can self impose those. But having another one is really helpful too from a publisher or something. What will often happen for me is I start going through the materials that I acquired in an archive and started taking notes. And the notes really quickly turned into sort of narrative notes. I am describing what is in the document and soon, I’m actually I’ve unconsciously begun writing what, what the history is, then it’s constant writing and revision. When I open up a document, at the beginning of the day, when I’m full in the writing process, I’ll usually start rereading what I had done the day before, fix some things up, make notes to myself where I need to come back to, before adding at the bottom of that document, I usually do not start at the beginning of the project, I’ll often start someplace I think is easy. Like there’s a really rich scene that I know I want to write or a really rich source that I want to sort of dive into. And so that gives me a little bit of momentum. And I find that momentum is really helpful. And you can build out around it. And I find starting at the beginning very difficult because you often don’t know where your story is actually going to begin or there can be many, there can be multiple beginnings, same thing with endings for that matter. I often start in the middle, almost stream of consciousness trying to figure something out with with some of the material that I have.
Kate Carpenter 9:16
It sounds like you do some revision as you go. Do you have sort of a revision process once you get to the end of a first draft?
Adam Sowards 9:23
There’s a lot of revision while I’m working. And that evolves day by day, which usually means the things that I wrote first get to be smoother than the things that I wrote last. One of the most useful revision tools that I have used is I call it a reverse outline. I don’t know what other people call it, but once I have something written, I’ll then outline it, which I know that seems backwards, most people outline first and then write, but for me, you know, once you get 20 pages or 200 pages, it’s really hard to see and I can break down a chapter or book into a page or a few pages, and I can see it all. And all of a sudden, the holes appear in sort of a glaring way, where I might have had a smooth transition between one paragraph and the next, when you look at it in outline form, you see that? Well, those sentences connected, but the topics actually don’t. So that’s been a really helpful thing for me to do. From sort of the structural perspective, I often read aloud, not a whole book, at least not in one sitting. That’s one way to find prose that stumbles, or you hear things when you’re reading aloud, that you don’t see when you’re looking at it on the screen. So those are some of the things that I do for the revision process. Besides sharing with others, I have many good friends who indulge me, my wife indulges me, my best friends indulge me, I have multiple writing groups that I have been associated with, in one way or another. And I go to different ones for different reasons and get different feedback from them. So that’s always very useful to have their, their eyes and their critical thinking about what I’ve written. And I can choose to ignore them, that’s probably not usually a good idea. But when four of them are saying the same thing, or pointing at the same spot, you know, that’s a place that needs more attention.
Kate Carpenter 11:26
How does your process look different when you’re working, say, on a personal essay versus straight history?
Adam Sowards 11:32
I don’t have as many files of artifacts around me, for one. So in that respect, it’s really thinking a lot about the language and the expressiveness of the language. And all of that has to be factual, I can’t make things up in personal essays, just like I can’t make things up when I’m writing history. But there’s a different sensibility that I bring to the laptop or to the notebook. When I sit down to do that, I think in I can spend probably more time lingering over the flow of a sentence, the right words than I do. Certainly, in the revision process I do that more than I do when I’m writing straight history. It’s a little freer writing process and revision process. And part, this is gonna seem silly, but part of it is I’m, I’m not surrounded by books. I’m not surrounded by archival files. So it’s, it’s me in the document and my memory or my notes from when I walked in a certain place. Or thinking back to the senses that were engaged when I was at the seashore, or wherever it is, I might have been writing.
Kate Carpenter 12:51
Were there things about writing that you had to learn or maybe unlearn when you sort of went from academic writing to writing newspaper columns or personal essays?
Adam Sowards 13:03
There’s, there’s a little bit different language when working with journalists. No history professor I ever had told me what a nut graf was, for example. So I had to learn some things like that. Writing for, say, a newspaper or magazine or an online source, there’s a great need to connect to the present and current events that is different than I experienced writing straight history. And for me, often, like, well, this is just inherently fascinating. And so everyone should be inherently fascinated by this. And so trying to get a news hook has been a trick for me to learn how to do. And I’m still learning how to do that, for sure. That permission to use first person was something that I suppose had to be learned. I don’t think anyone ever told me that I couldn’t do that before. But it’s just something you learn. You don’t do that when you’re writing academic work very often. And being freed up to try that was a really interesting experience. And stuff came out for me when I was felt free to do that. And that was sort of a liberating experience, I think.
Kate Carpenter 14:22
How do you think about or do you think about the relationship between your academic writing and your more public facing writing?
Adam Sowards 14:28
I’ll answer that this way. When I’m working on a public facing piece, almost invariably, in the process of getting it down the first time or revising it. I panic, and the panic is, all my historian friends are going to read this and say, Oh, my gosh, Adam, you know it’s more complicated than this. You’re making these generalizations and you shouldn’t do that there’s so much more to it that you’re not putting in. And it’s, it can be kind of debilitating. So I have a panic attack for a day, worried about what all my academic peers are going to think of me. And then I remember, and I don’t know why I can’t remember it from one piece to the next. But I never do that. I remember, Oh, you’re not writing to your academic peers. And so then I’m like, the general public that I’m hoping to reach, doesn’t know this, hasn’t read 18 books on this topic, and doesn’t care about the nuances between those interpretations. And so I can have that information in my head. And they could shape the analysis or the explanation that I’m offering and have it be informed by that. But I don’t have to get into all of those nitty gritty details. And so they’re like two voices in my head, the academic voices telling me you’ve got to, you know, be super critical and super nuanced and theoretically informed, and historically, graphically grounded. And then the, you need to be as clear as possible, because your readers don’t know all of that stuff. And they don’t care about all of that stuff. And so I try to be informed by my academic training, and by the insights I get from my peers, but not sort of hamstrung by that.
Kate Carpenter 16:28
This is, this is a big thing I struggle with. So it’s really actually helpful to hear you talk about this. Have you ever gotten pushback from the academic community about your other writing?
Adam Sowards 16:37
I can’t think of any. I mean, if someone was really offended, I’m not sure they would come in and tell me. And maybe I’m forgetting a case. But I don’t think that’s, I don’t think I’ve experienced that. It, the voice in my head is real. And it’s, I can, I’m won’t tell you, but there’s a there’s a person in my field, who sits in my brain and talks to me, it’s not good.
Kate Carpenter 17:11
Do you get reader feedback? When you work more publicly? I know, like this week, for example, I think you just had an op ed come out in the Los Angeles Times, which has a massive readership Do you hear from people?
Adam Sowards 17:24
Sometimes, through social media, you know, you get likes or retweets, or whatever. Occasionally, I will get emails from people that found something in what I wrote to be– usually there’s a personal connection, people who have reached out to me that way. And that’s really great. That’s gratifying to have that happen. I suppose there’s some criticism that comes through social media. And I’m pretty good at being able to move beyond that fairly fast. And it’s, there’s not, I mean, I don’t have as wide of a reach as some authors. And so I don’t get the type of pushback that others do. I’m also a white man. And so I’m not going to get some pushback that other scholars writing in the public sphere are going to get.
Kate Carpenter 18:18
To examine how Adam approaches writing personal essays, I asked him to talk to me about the introduction to an essay published in Wild Roof Journal this summer. Here’s Adam, reading from the beginning of his essay “Submerged Stories, Breaching History.”
Adam Sowards 18:36
A few times a year, when the crowded shelves of my university library and the cramped departments in this college town threaten to bury me, I go to the river. It’s a 20-mile journey, although a red tailed hawk could do it in a dozen. To get there I drive up out of town, cross the state highway and move through the rolling hills, held in place by a century and a half of wheat and before that by bunchgrasses sinking their roots into loess so deep as to be practically bottomless. Soon, the road banks and opens up next to Union Flat Creek, along which the area’s first homesteaders planted their stakes. Old farmhouses and rusting equipment sit beside new combines and tractors off short spur roads and long gravel driveways that branch off the route I’m driving like trickling tributaries to the main stem. On back roads around here I often see signs nailed to barns–SAVE OUR DAMS–a talisman meant to ward off environmentalists who wish to breach dams so that salmon abundance might be restored to regional streams. When I reached the stop sign, I turn and descend Wawawai Canyon, where over the course of a half-dozen miles I wind my way down 1600 feet. The canyon is narrow and the hills so steep like cannot always see their tops from the pavement. The angles are severe enough that every time I see the cattle and game trails that skirt the curves like topo lines on a map, I marvel at the feats of faunal engineering, certain that there must be scores of skeletons littering the gully below, the result of one misstep or a fatal gust of wind. The road traces Wawawai Creek until it pools at the bottom of the hill into a small pond and a county park, which leaks out beneath a railroad bridge into the Snake River. During the 30 minute drive, fast food, restaurants and car dealerships yield to farms and then to ranches and then the empty banks of the Snake, which pulls me like a current–not only downstream, but also into a past. All places contain ghost landscapes when you see them as a historian does, which is to say, how I do. Buried beneath today’s scenic vista lies all of the yesterdays, layered one upon another, accreting with passing memories and moments. I obsess over this interplay of place and time. It is where I live, where I think; it is how I chart the world. And I wonder how anyone could plot their universe otherwise. Even if it does mean being constantly confronted by loss.
Kate Carpenter 21:28
One of the reasons that I chose this passage, which is the start of a longer essay, is that I was really struck by how much it’s clear how much knowledge both of the history of this place and its landscape and of its current state you have. But you sort of resist the urge to point out your knowledge or the research that goes into that knowledge. And yet, as readers, we really feel feel the weight of that sort of intimate knowledge of place in history. Is that something that you have to work on, that you have to revise toward? Or does that come out in your approach to essay writing?
Adam Sowards 22:06
I think it is, in my approach to this kind of writing, I want to evoke not lecture here in this mode. It’s also just, I mean, at the end of that excerpt, describes it’s, it’s how I see the world. And so I’m trying to share that. But without being didactic. So I guess it’s sitting down to write, thinking about the purpose, thinking about the audience, and trying to make meaning there. So so that’s just my approach. I think that this kind of writing, it’s, I came to realize, when writing this essay, I shared a draft with a writing group I was part of, and the writing group included no historians. In fact, most of the people in the writing group wrote fiction, primarily. They asked me, like, do you really see the world like that? And I sort of asked back, don’t you? And it was a, it was a really important moment for me to realize that not everyone is a historian, not everyone looks at the landscape and can imagine what happened there or understood what happened there decades ago, or centuries ago. Part of this essay is about how that can feel like a burden sometimes. And I really wish I didn’t have that, it’d be nice to just look and look at what a pretty place, and not know all of that loss. But it also is this special power that I have, because I’ve been trained as a historian. And this was a place that I had a landscape I lived in for almost two decades. And like, I knew it in my bones, I knew it through my brain, and in trying to express it clearly. So that others might feel some of that was what I was trying to do
Kate Carpenter 24:07
Your writing, and I think your essays in particular, really have this palpable sense of place, which I especially love because you are often describing some of my favorite landscapes in the world. But I was curious to know if if you have practical strategies for trying to evoke that sense of place. I think you even mentioned maybe notes earlier.
Adam Sowards 24:29
Yeah, I take notes. When I’m, sometimes I’ll go out like, I’m going to be inspired today. And so you go out and you try to just capture everything I can with notes. Sometimes that inspiration just strikes and you take notes, however you can if you’ve got a phone or a notebook or what have you. I worked with a, one of the editors I worked with at High Country News talked to me about creating scenes. She described trying to get three senses in. That has really stuck with me, not just what it looks like, but what can I smell? What do I feel? What do I hear? So I take notes on those sorts of things, take tons of pictures. Very, very frequently, when I’m writing, really any type of writing that I’m doing, I have one screen with the text, and I’ve got a picture next to it. And so that helps me get colors. And that brings up memories for me. So those are some of the things that I’m doing and just really trying to get a sense, trying to remember what these places are. Or if I mean, if I’m writing about the past that I have not been part of, because I was not born yet. If I have been to the place, I tried to, some of those landscapes aren’t going to have changed much. If I can find old photographs, or maps, for example, just any clues that can register some familiarity for me or for my potential readers, I’ll try to sort of note them as much as I can.
Kate Carpenter 26:06
I was struck that the opening of this passage reminded me so much of the opening of Moby Dick, as I, as I mentioned to you, and then kind of the progression reminded me of Bill Cronon’s essay, Kennecott Journey. I was curious to know if that was deliberate if you were trying to sort of evoke other literary references as you write or if I, if I’m just reading too much into the opening of your essay.
Adam Sowards 26:28
It’s pretty flattering. I was not thinking of Melville or Bill Cronon when I was doing this. I don’t know that I ever deliberately set out to imitate writers, but I read a ton. And I take notes on that reading, I sometimes will copy out passages from essays I’m reading by hand. I’ve absorbed all of that, I’m sure. But it’s not very conscious when I’m doing it, I don’t think I do think that there will be times when I think, Okay, I’m like this piece, I’m going down a long, curvy road. So I have some long sentences with multiple clauses that try to mimic that in some way. But that wasn’t me trying to mimic Melville. That was me trying to mimic the landscape that I was traveling through.
Kate Carpenter 27:26
I mean, that raises an interesting question for me, are there ways that you deliberately try to work on your craft? Or is it just through practice?
Adam Sowards 27:35
Practice is the big one. The more you write, and the more you’re willing to experiment, the more times you’ll fail, but eventually, you’ll get something. I also, for a number of years now, on occasion will take part in a writing workshop. So I’ll work on my craft by I’m in a class right now, as a matter of fact, and hearing how these other writers, both those who are in the class with me, for the workshop with me, or and the ones who are leading it, and they give you assignments, and you try out new things. And sometimes they don’t work. And sometimes they really open up something pretty powerful. But nothing teaches writing better than writing.
Kate Carpenter 28:22
One thing that I’ve really liked, I would like to know is that you have, I think, four books out is that right?
Adam Sowards 28:28
Four books and an edited volume.
Kate Carpenter 28:29
Okay. All of your books are are quite different, not only in subject, but in tone. What leads you to a book project?
Adam Sowards 28:38
Gosh, well, different things. A couple of books that I have written, my most recent, Making America’s Public Lands and my first, United States West Coast Environmental History, are part of, the publishers have series and series editors approached me for each of those. And when the right topic comes to me, and I can imagine my way toward completion, I say yes. And I’m not sure that’s always the best strategy. But it has served me well, on occasion, for sure. The other books that that my, my study of William O Douglas, as a conservationist, came out of my dissertation, and that came to me, because here was this man, extremely important during his lifetime. And well known at the time as a conservationist, someone who cared about the natural world, was involved in environmental causes. And I would see him referenced in lots of books at the time, and then by scholars later, but you know, he’d be in the index three times and he’d be part of a sentence each of those times and I was like, There’s got to be more here. So that was, you know, the the general dissertation like there’s a gap here we don’t know enough about so I would, I would find that. A book that I published in 2020, An Open Pit Visible from the Moon, was a complete accident. And in fact, I think in my acknowledgments I say this, I often joke that this is the book that I wrote by accident. I had friends who were putting an edited volume together asked if I would do a chapter and I said, No. And they said, come on. And I said, No. And they said, we really, could you could you do one, and I was like, okay, here are two ideas. And they said, Either one would be fine. And it actually derived out of my work on Douglas, there was a protest he had been part of, in 1967, that I didn’t write about in the book on Douglas was like, I could write a chapter on this, it’d be kind of fun. So there was a proposed mine gonna go in, he went to a campground, bunch of college students came to listen to him. And he said, We shouldn’t do this. Yeah, that’d be, I could do a chapter on that. And I started doing the research. And it was just so full of interesting characters. And I was like, oh, gosh, I’ll do the chapter. But there’s a book here. I’m a curious person. And I’ll find something, I’ll poke around a little bit. And I’ll just, I’ll try to gauge how much time and investment the project might be. And I’ll, I’ll, I’ll go after it, I guess. And sort of follow my curiosity. And for good, or ill, and see where it takes me.
Kate Carpenter 29:51
You’re quite prolific, I was gonna say, as a historian, but honestly, just as a writer, generally, What keeps you writing so much? Or how are you able to produce so much do you think?
Adam Sowards 31:47
I’m very fortunate in my career, to have opportunities to have a stable job up until last spring, when I stopped, I’ve had a supportive family, during these years, supportive colleagues. So all of those things really happen, or help, tremendously to have that sort of background support. I think that I’m willing to do good enough work, and not perfect work. If I were working, I could imagine any of the books that I wrote all being 600 pages long, and having gone to four times as many archives and have eight times as many footnotes, and six times as many theoretical interventions. And that’s not who I was, or who I am. And so, I’ll write, and I’ll finish, and I’ll send it off, and I’ll move on. And so I think being not obsessive, probably helps me write more. And it’s taken a bit but learning, learning that, you know, it doesn’t have to be perfect. And you can, you can just move on, is probably a pretty good lesson too. But if writing is what you want to do, and I mean, you can write for yourself, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want people to read you, you write, you submit, you pitch, you get it out there, and you keep doing it. And I mean, these things, this is you know, this is I think, both good, fortunate, but also the way the system sort of rigged, once you become a little bit successful, more opportunities can come to you, once you’ve pitched before and been successful somewhere, you’re going to be more likely for it to be picked up again. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get turned down all the time. But you develop a rhythm, you develop relationships with editors, and you become a better writer. I mean, it’s the great teacher.
Kate Carpenter 33:46
I want to ask you a little bit about your new email newsletter. And first, if you don’t mind, could you just sort of describe what your newsletter is about?
Adam Sowards 33:55
Sure, I call it Taking Bearings. And I think about we think about taking bearings when you’re out on the land, like taking a map and a compass and figure out where you are. And I also think that’s important to figure out when you are. So that’s kind of the the approach I have. My plan has been to cycle through different themes for each newsletter. So the first is I call it the classroom, which is essentially a history lesson. And that’s followed by a field trip, which is usually me going someplace, talking about the history that has happened there and my experience on that landscape at the time. Then I cycle into what I call the library, which is me reporting on a book that I’ve read, usually from the past a book that’s decades old, and then a wildcard because I figured there’s going to be other things I want to write about. So I leave that open, and I just cycle through and I think I’ve just finished the second cycle through all of that so it’s fairly new and it’ll evolve. It’s an experiment. It’s absolutely an experiment and who knows what it’ll be like, in a month or three months or however long down the road it is.
Kate Carpenter 35:03
What are your goals for the newsletter? I’m especially curious as a writer, what do you see is kind of the reason to have a newsletter?
Adam Sowards 35:11
Yeah, well, I think it emerged out of I mean, I retired from my professors job, and I still have things that I thought, Gosh, I know some stuff. And maybe people would want to know some of it too. And maybe that’s super presumptuous of me. Part of it was a way for me to reach people, like in my family, who maybe aren’t on Twitter, and don’t know when I published something like this would be a way for me to also share with them that I have a new article out you might be interested in. But I’ve started to think about it. And I call it in my head, these are voice lessons. And it’s like practice for me. So it comes out once a week, it gives me some accountability, once a week, I have to produce something that goes to people. That means I’ve got to get something done and done good enough. None of these pieces are anything that I think would be published in any regular venue. But it gives me practice writing, it gives me a deadline to get things done. It gets me thinking about the past thinking about writing. So it it’s very much a public way of writing and and trying to get better at that. One of the things I have hoped it would do is make me a faster writer. I’m not in shape enough yet for that to have have have worked. But I’m working on that.
Kate Carpenter 36:42
I imagine it’s a lot like running, where you have to build up your base miles before you can start working on speed.
Adam Sowards 36:47
I think so.
Kate Carpenter 36:48
Are there other historians, or other writers generally who you look to as inspirations?
Adam Sowards 36:54
Yes, many, many, many. Like I said, I read all the time. I’m not, these days I’m not reading lots of historians and lots of academic historians. I’m really interested in how journalists write history, and what I can learn from that. And so that’s been something that I’ve paid some attention to lately, Michelle Nijhuis’ book, Beloved Beasts, is a good example of that. I recently read Jonathan Thompson’s Sagebrush Empire. Both of those authors have done a lot of writing for High Country News. So I have some affinity for that. My favorite author is Rebecca Solnit. And she describes herself as a historian and writer and activist. And I love how she writes. I do not, at all, imitate how she writes. But I love seeing her mind at work on the page. I’m a big fan of Helen MacDonald, who is a marvelous writer, historian, essayist. I really like what she does quite a bit. I could go on and on and on, sort of classic essays. I love E.B. White. I love James Baldwin. John McPhee is a master, I’ll stop there.
Kate Carpenter 38:12
It’s a pretty fantastic list. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Adam Sowards 38:17
Oh, this is a great question. And I have a few different answers. And the first is sort of a mindset advice. And it came from my adviser when I was an undergraduate, a man named Bill Breitenbach. And I think I was probably a junior in his office, and I went to his office hours, and I was asking something about writing. And he said, you know, Adam, you’re on a journey with no end. It’s not like you wake up one day, and all of a sudden, you’re a good writer. And so that was really good advice that this is just, you’re always going to be able to get better at it. It’s not something that, you know, you take this many classes, or you write this many books, and all of a sudden, you’re done, you have nothing to learn anymore. So that was really terrific. And then, after I wrote my dissertation, and I was trying to revise it into a book, and the dissertation was fine, but it needed something else. And a friend of mine, actually barely knew him at the time, Mark Harvey said, why don’t you take this apart and see how many different ways you can put it back together? And that was really wonderful advice. And I don’t know how deeply considered that was. It seems like kind of an offhand comment. But it just it blew up the dissertation. I think the dissertation had like 12 chapters and three parts and this elaborate structure. And if you look at the book, I think there are five chapters. I mean, it’s very different, but he sort of gave me permission to say, what’s between the covers of your dissertation can be entirely rearranged if you want. So that was really, really good. I think, writing most days, I like to say every day, but we need breaks and practical living doesn’t always make that possible. But touching your writing most days is helpful. And I think reading is really important. Rebecca Solnit, who I mentioned before, wrote a really nice piece on how to be a writer in Lit Hub, I believe was where it was, and one of her points was to read and not be just reading in the present. So read old things. So you asked what I read and some of the things, some of the writers that I’m reading are long dead, and to touch those other times and see other concerns across decades or across centuries can either help us see what’s universal, or help us see that the current thing that we’re focused on, isn’t necessarily always going to be there. So it gives you a sense of perspective. And I think that that’s really, really valuable.
Kate Carpenter 41:00
Are there other new projects that you’re working on?
Adam Sowards 41:02
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if I have a big book that’s going on right now. William O. Douglas, who I wrote about and have mentioned in this interview, he wrote a book called An Almanac of Liberty. And for every day of the year, he wrote this mini history lesson about liberty. So it might be a quick thing on the Bill of Rights or the Magna Carta, or something like that. And I’ve been toying with doing something like that, with regard to environmental issues, because that’s the focus of what I do. So I’ve written some entries like that. And I’ve charted out most of the days of the year, but not all of them. So that’s a possibility. And I started a project on my sabbatical in 2019 and ’20, that looks at federal lands in a way, unlike what I had done, for the last book, I put it away, I put the project away for a while, I’ve written a personal essay out of it, I’m working on another element now. And it’s big and amorphous, and I’m not sure if it’s going to fail, which will be okay. Or if it’s going to grow into something new, which would be okay. Or, if there’s going to be three little pieces of it. So I don’t know, I’m really interested, as, as I think this is all conveyed in place, and history in place, and how being out on the land, moves me to think historically and environmentally about places. Clint Smith’s recent book is just an amazing book. And the title is, is escaping the moment–
Kate Carpenter 42:51
How the Word is Passed.
Adam Sowards 42:52
How the Word is Passed. That’s it. And so he goes to all of these sites where slavery existed and is commemorated in some way. And he talks to people who are there and thinks about this. And I have wondered if doing a project like that would be possible in the region that I call home. And that matters a lot to me. So those are some of the things that I’m thinking about and exploring and seeing if, if my life will allow that to happen in these coming months and years.
Kate Carpenter 43:25
Those all sound like amazing projects, so I can’t can’t wait to see what comes from them. Thank you so much for joining me for this interview. It’s been so great to learn more about your writing process.
Adam Sowards 43:37
It was my pleasure. Thanks a lot, Kate.
Kate Carpenter 43:39
Thanks again to Dr. Adam Sowards for joining me on this episode of Drafting the Past, and as always, I’m grateful to you for listening. You can find links to Adam’s work and other things we talked about at DraftingthePast.com. While you’re there, don’t forget to leave me a voicemail for our upcoming bonus episodes. And in the meantime, happy writing!