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.
My interview in this episode is with writer and historian Dr. Kidada Williams. Dr. Williams’ most recent book is I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, which came out with Bloomsbury this year. She is also one of the co-creators of #CharlestonSyllabus, which began as a collection of resources on Twitter in response to the racist massacre at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and is now available as a collection of readings on race, racism and racial violence through the University of Georgia Press. Her first book, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, was published by New York University Press in 2012. In addition to her writing, Dr. Williams is also the host and co-producer of Seizing Freedom, a podcast about African Americans’ fight for liberty and equality during and after the Civil War. In addition to being an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, she also makes many public appearances and consults with projects to help the public engage with history. You are guaranteed to walk away from this interview inspired and encouraged — be sure to share it with a friend!
MENTIONED IN THE SHOW
- “Thickening the Data: How Excel Helped Me Become a Better Historian”
- Karin Wulf and Leslie M. Harris, “What Trump is Missing About American History”
- Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz, Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House
- Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
- David Kazanjian, “Scenes of Speculation,” one of many places where he discusses the concept of “quotidiana” (PDF)
- A.J. Verdelle, Miss Chloe: A Memoir of a Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison
- Karin Slaughter
- Louise Penny
- Toni Morrison
- Gayl Jones
- Elsa Barkley Brown
Kate Carpenter 0:00
Hey, welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast devoted to the craft of writing history. I’m your host Kate Carpenter, and my interview in this episode is with writer and historian Dr. Kidada Williams.
Kidada Williams 0:12
Thank you so much for having me.
Kate Carpenter 0:14
Dr. Williams’ most recent book is I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, which came out with Bloomsbury this year. She is also one of the co-creators of #CharlestonSyllabus, which began as a collection of resources on Twitter in response to the racist massacre at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and is now available as a collectin of readings on race, racism and racial violence through the University of Georgia Press. Her first book, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, was published by NYU Press in 2012. In addition to her writing, Dr. Williams is also the host and co-producer of Seizing Freedom, a podcast about African Americans’ fight for liberty and equality during and after the Civil War. In addition to being an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, she also makes many public appearances and consults with projects to help the public engage with history. I have no doubt you will walk away from this interview inspired by Dr. Kidada Williams, so let’s get to it.
Kidada Williams 1:20
I’ve always loved writing, but I’ve never been good at it, I guess is the way I would start, or I had to, I should say, I had to learn to be good at it. I didn’t think much about writing in graduate school, you know, because we’re trying to sort of focus on argument, evidence, etc. and not really think about ourselves as writers. And so I was mostly an academic writer through graduate school, I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2006. I started as an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, I continued on that trajectory. Through my first book, They Left Great Marks on Me, which was published in 2012. And I don’t really think I started to come into my own thinking about myself as a writer, until after I published that first book. And I had time to reflect on all of the things I wasn’t able to do in that book.
Kate Carpenter 2:18
I’d love to know just the practicalities of how you work. So when and where do you do your writing,
Kidada Williams 2:23
A lot of that depends on where I am in the stage of writing. If I am doing research, like reading, I do a lot of reading, I do that first thing in the morning, before I even get up out of bed, like really out of bed. When I’m in the drafting phase, I tend to be like a nightmare over here. I used to be able to work anywhere in cafes, and libraries, and you know, just anywhere. But as I started to evolve as a writer, I needed a fewer distractions. And so I start working primarily from home. And when I work from home, I can control the amount of noise in the environment. And I’m able to do things like play seaside music, and play a cafe playlist that has very little conversation and irritating noises. Because the more distractions I have, the harder it is for me to write. And so when I’m in that drafting phase, I’m in the, you know, sort of running out the dirty tap. And so when I talk about like the sort of madness of the writing process, I really do mean that it’s mad, like you don’t want to be anywhere near me, I in that process, because I am really trying to figure out where I’m going and writing in the most unencumbered way. Like there are a lot of ellipses in the draft. And I have to remind myself, I have to get disciplined about saying, This is what you were thinking with this ellipses. Otherwise, when I go back to revise, I’ll just have like, you know, a manuscript that sprinkled with ellipses, and I have no idea what I was thinking at the time. And so I like to draft unencumbered and part of my evolution as a writer was understanding my need to embrace revision as part of the process. And so I revise a lot, it takes a while, I think it takes me longer to revise than it does to draft in the first place. But that’s because I’m trying to be more effective at communicating the story that I’m trying to tell.
Kate Carpenter 4:32
On a sort of practical level, what does the revision process look like for you?
Kidada Williams 4:36
So the revision process looks more like me, always revising in my head no matter what I’m doing. And often I can be at a park, I can be in a movie. I can be in a department meeting. I could be driving and somewhere else like I’m always processing different parts of the book and sometimes something I’ll see or something else. Hear will make me think about a specific section of the book, I need to go back and address. So I tried to take little notes, and then I go back to address, whatever the specific issues are, I think I, it’s probably safe to say that I write the rewrite the book from start to finish a dozen or so times, maybe a couple of dozen times, after I’ve done that initial draft. And so that revision, it’s not as intense or as crazy as the drafting process. Because I can take my time I can think about it, I’m trying to figure out what’s working, I can circle around something that I need to refine for a larger audience in a way that I wasn’t thinking about as clearly, when I’m drafting so much calmer, much calmer, much more collective.
Kate Carpenter 5:49
As you’re working, do you have a system for organizing your notes?
Kidada Williams 5:53
I do. When I was researching I Saw Death Coming, I read this great blog post, and it was called Thickening the Data. And what it discusses is using an Excel spreadsheet to process your data. And so what I did, because I focus so much on the testimonies, was I processed every single testimony on a spreadsheet. So every there was a row for every witness in the hearings whose story I examine. And there were like a couple of dozen columns that cover different aspects of their own identity, a composition of their household, and different aspects of the violence. They said they endured. And what happened afterwards, did they lose property were they displays, did they suffer significant injuries, etc. And so in processing the data in that way, what started to happen was that the chapters came into focus very quickly, in a way that they didn’t for my first book, which was based on my dissertation,
Kate Carpenter 6:55
Did your writing process change between your first and second books?
Kidada Williams 6:59
It did, but mostly for the revision. And the nature of the change was primarily because I had to think more deliberately about audience in a way that I hadn’t before, you know. And I think part of that is because the sort of difference between publishing for university press and publishing trade, publishing, you’re writing your first book, as opposed to writing your second book, when you’ve written your first book, you have a pretty good sense, or you gain like understanding and experience about what you need, how you need to organize your materials, how much data you need, when to go back to the archive, when to keep your behind out of the archive, how much additional reading you need to do when you need to stop procrastinating, and sit down and finish the project. So for me, it’s been like a learning process. But with them with the second book, I had to think more deliberately, or I had to be more mindful about the audience, because I was going for a larger audience than I had for my first book. And for revision, you have to spend a lot more time taking off your head as the writer and putting on your head as the reader, and then figuring out you know, for yourself, and sometimes with the help of other readers or your editor, where you have slipped back into some old bad academic habits of jargon, and over explaining an academic language and trying to figure out what was happening when you sort of fell back into that what you know, were you insecure? Or were you troubled? Was there like a gap in the evidence, what exactly is going on here? That made you sort of shift away from storytelling to this really academic language? So you have to be more aware of that when you’re thinking about a general audience.
Kate Carpenter 8:50
Talk to me a little bit about the decision to publish the second book with with a trade press?
Kidada Williams 8:54
Well, I think I come from a history loving family. And so I come by honestly, right, my family, they love history, African American history, African history, US history, they just love it. So I grew up with that, from my mother and my father, from my all my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. And so when I published my first book, what I realized was that I met the academic factors, but I kind of failed the personal factors. And what I mean by that is, it’s not that my family couldn’t read my very academic book, but that they might not want to, because of all the academic stuff that’s in there. And so I felt satisfied, having contributed some new insight for understanding how African Americans experience racist violence. But I also realized that I had also failed, right? I had failed to deliver the kind of history that members of my family would love to read. And so I spent, you know, at that moment, you know, when I’m when family members are buying the book, and they want me to sign it, and they say, I’m going to read it, the fact that I have to tell them to skip the introduction, right is sort of what sort of like my first clue, because it was just sort of like, what I understood was that the introduction was mostly for academics. It was for my fellow historians, not necessarily for a general audience. And that’s how I realized I had kind of let I had left the family and the people down. And I have been working to try to rectify that ever since. And so I tried to sort of take on projects like hashtag Charlson Syllabus that reached a larger audience, I knew that for the second book, I was telling a related but very different story than I told in They Left Great Marks on Me. And I really wanted that to reach a larger audience. It’s not that non academics can’t read the book, as I said, I think it’s that they may not want to, because of all of the academic all of the jargon in there, all the overexplaining, all of the stuff that sort of comes with an academic book. And so I knew that I wanted to reach a larger audience. And I was committed to doing that, and committed to sort of doing things like learning how to communicate with that larger audience thinking more about what they want, and need, what they already know, what they might need, explained or not, and how to do all of that, in the revision process for the books. So I knew that going in. And I tried to embrace things like more storytelling, and thinking about what is too much information, what’s not enough information, as I’m drafting the book. But then when I shifted over to revision, I had to sort of there are a lot of stops and starts, as I was revising, because I had to think more about the general audience, a general audience isn’t going to put up with a lot of stuff that academic readers endure, they don’t have to, they’ve got too many options to read, they’ve got you know, they got YouTube, for better or for worse, you know, they’ve got you to, they’re not going to put up with that sort of nonsense. And so if the burden or you know, that that puts the entire responsibility for communicating in ways that they would understand in ways that they would be receptive to on me, and I actually embraced it, what I realized was how much more I enjoyed the writing how much more I enjoyed sort of thinking about it, thinking about the things I needed to consider, I think there’s this great piece that Leslie Harris and Karin Wulf wrote in response to the 1619 Project, where they liken public work to stepping into a stream, right, so you to a story and walking into a stream, where you walk into a stream, it’s a body of water that’s moving. And so you need to know the high points, the low points how cool or warm the temperature is how fast the current is. And this is all to say you need to be aware of what the larger public is thinking what they think they know, some of the false assumptions they have, and you need to be prepared to address them in your book. And so in thinking about the audience, I had to think about some of the common false narratives about reconstruction, a lot of the misunderstandings about reconstruction, and not just say that they’re wrong, but to explain how those narratives came into being and why they’re wrong. And you know, why the story that I’m telling fills a gap that is significant for understanding not only what happened in reconstruction, but the moment we live in today.
Kate Carpenter 13:40
Were their approaches or, or tools, or I don’t know, ways of training yourself to reach a more public audience to think in that way that you that you used?
Kidada Williams 13:51
Yes. So there were a couple of things I did. One, I read a lot of fiction, a lot of fiction. And I read a lot of narrative histories and creative nonfiction. And what I was reading for was not only, you know, the story or the facts of what was being, you know, the facts of what I was learning, but how the writers delivered their information, how they laid out the story. And this is a good that shift from being like an academic to thinking more about myself as a writer. When you think about yourself, as a writer, when you embrace a writer identity, you start to pay closer attention to what other people are doing. And so what I did was I also read very widely, you know, my work is already interdisciplinary to a degree, but my reading practice is very, like I read a lot. And what you see is and what you have to think about is what what resonates for me, and what resonates what seems to be resonating with this story for other audiences. And so more recently, I think it was probably maybe almost a year ago, I read the Bag Man, which is on Watergate. Now I thought I understood that I thought I understood the Watergate story, which I did. But what I paid, the closest attention to in reading the book was how well it was written. And, you know, like the pacing, the pacing is kind of frenetic, and thinking about where the author delivered information and held back information, you know, like, you know, made you wait a couple of beats, and how effective that was in terms of storytelling. And, you know, trying to think about how I could apply that to the story that I that I’m telling. And then later in the process of writing, I Saw Death Coming, I started paying more attention to craft books, you know, no one, no one automatically grows up knowing how to write. They all read craft books, even people who had those, you know, those fancy writing programs, they just don’t acknowledge they read them, but they read them. Because they’re really useful for thinking about things that we’re not trying to think about. You know, they’re useful for thinking about suspense, for thinking about how to use all of the senses, to sort of communicate to sort of place the reader in a space in a moment in time and to make that story resonate in a way that it might not have if you just did like a general description of what people saw.
Kate Carpenter 16:20
To look more closely at how Dr. Williams uses those tools to make her story resonate with audiences, I asked her to read and talk to me about an excerpt from her new book in which she does just that. Here’s Dr. Kidada Williams, reading from “I Saw Death Coming.”
Kidada Williams 16:34
“The thunder of hooves broke the silence of the night, jarring Caroline Benson awake in White County, Georgia, and alerting her that white men were coming and that she and her family were in imminent danger. For one man, of Spartanburg County, South Carolina, it was the barking of his dogs; for another man in the same locale, it was the sound of white men’s bodies crashing into his door. For others, it was the whoop of the rebel yell, high-pitched hoots of whistles or bugles, or screams coming from neighbors’ yards. What these families heard was a shadow army of white men in their communities: it sounded like death was coming. After the invaders left, there was a return to an eerie silence, broken only by the cries of the dying or the pained wails of their surviving kin. Like Edward Crosby—who saw white men on horseback descending on his home in the dark of night—James Alston, of York, South Carolina, saw death coming for him in the form of disguised white men with guns in their hands. Another man saw a notice nailed to a post, threatening to slit his throat if he crossed a bridge to visit his property in Tuskegee, Alabama. Still another looked outside and saw his yard, in Chatham County, North Carolina, full of armed white men. A Florida couple’s young children sat watching from the woods as white men whipped and assaulted both their parents. A father also watched, in stunned silence, as a gang beat and repeatedly stabbed his son, in Limestone County, Alabama. A wife watched, too, as her husband lay dying on the family’s cabin floor near Glenn Springs, South Carolina. The things targeted people saw when they thought death was coming for them stuck with them for the rest of their lives.”
Kate Carpenter 18:35
Out of curiosity, are you doing the audiobook?
Kidada Williams 18:38
I am not doing the audiobook because I didn’t believe I could do it justice.
Kate Carpenter 18:41
Oh, my gosh, your voice.
Kidada Williams 18:44
That’s what people say. But it’s my book. Right. But it’s my book. And the and the other thing is that I’ve heard some I’ve heard some writers read their books, and they’re terrible. Terrible. I you know, there are, there are some people I have put the book that I have put the audio book down. And I have gone and found the paper book just to keep on going. And so I wanted to professional and there will be an audio book.
Kate Carpenter 19:08
Quick Editor’s Note here to add that while we recorded this a little bit ago, the audio book is now available. And you can find it wherever you get your audio books.
Kidada Williams 19:15
We managed to get one of my favorite narrators. And so even though I’ve done the podcast, even though people are telling me I have a great voice for my own work, I just thought I don’t trust myself to do it. I mean, I need a professional to come in. And I should also say the other thing that I would think is that I think in the process, I would worry about all of the places where I could go, you’re I’m like, oh, I should revise that. Right? Or, oh, you know, I wish I had had more time with that because I’d say it differently now. And I feel like that would have interrupted the process. What I know about recording season freedom is that if a little sort of bug gets in my mind, it’s hard for me to deliver the line the way I’m supposed to, it’s really hard for me to stick the landing. And there are so many recordings, so many recordings of places where something has gotten into my head where we didn’t revise it, or I felt like there was a more effective way to communicate it, that I just butchered the line time and time again. And I didn’t want to do that with the recording of this book.
Kate Carpenter 20:22
All right. All right. That’s fair. Well, one thing, I think that in writing this book makes it so powerful is how you really centered the voices of the people who have provided these testimonies. And in the introduction, you you reference, an oral historian, Svetlana Alexievich, just fascinating, because you’re, you’re the second interview, and in recent memory, who’s referenced her, but part of what makes that so effective is also the work you do as a story and to weave those voices together to make a larger narrative. So how do you balance that? How do you figure out when to let their voices really speak and when to add your voice?
Kidada Williams 20:59
Well, I think the first thing I’ll say is that, that weaving together, the testimonies is exactly what she does. And so it seemed like how effectively, she tells the story, how people experience the Chernobyl disaster, and how children experienced the Holocaust, that really made it come into focus for me in a way that it hadn’t before. And so I tried to model that. But I think more specifically, this goes back to sort of embracing storytelling, toggling back and forth between writer and reader, and having enough people read the work to give you feedback on what’s working and what’s not. And what’s happening and having an editor chime in and say, what happened here? Why is it so academic, you had great storytelling over here, and now you’re back into the space that we don’t want you to be in. And so like, it becomes like an, it becomes like a part of the process, that sort of learning process. And I think once you embrace storytelling, it gets easier, the writing gets easier, it flows better. And you can figure out where the survivor story should stand on its own, or that line, a very particular line to stand on the throne, and where you as the historian, you know, where you do, and don’t need to come in and explain or put things in your own words, I think that gets better as you start to experiment better as you start to think more about who readers want to hear from in this moment, and who they need to hear from in the moment. Sometimes the historical actor, the subject, or in this case, the witness who’s telling the story can tell it better than you can, and sometimes their lines, deliver the information better than you ever could. And so you just have to get out of the way.
Kate Carpenter 22:52
A lot of passages in the book, including this one, are so vivid, because they’re full of sensory details. Did those also come from the oral histories? Or I know you did a tremendous amount of additional research. How do you pull those sorts of details out?
Kidada Williams 23:06
I think you pull those you pull those details out of all of the additional information in the story, or in the in the in the testimony. There’s this great piece by I think it’s David Dazanjian and I’ve going to butcher his name, I’m sorry, David, where he talks about quotidiana. And it’s all of this seemingly irrelevant information in a witness’s story that a lot of us brush pass. And I think a lot of historians studying these historical records to understand the facts of election violence, ignored a lot of the other information about them, because they were only focused on what the witness what a very specific witness said like a man who had been disenfranchised or driven from office, they were only focused on him and the facts of election violence. When that means story. That means testimony, I should say, it’s full of all of this other information that reveals a lot more about the moment about what time of day, it was about what time of year it was whether you know, and so part of what that means is trusting them and following some of the information in the testimony to understand where they were trying to take you and then trying to fill in some of the gaps. Like what time of the year wasn’t How cold is it in Northern Alabama, you know, this time of year to try to like fill in some of that additional information. Also imagining you know what it’s like to be in this space for a lot of families, for a lot of people were targeted. They’re not attacked on their own. They’re attacked with their families. And so you have to imagine the chaos that ensues in that kind of attack, which is like a home invasion. And try to help reader see all of those details about what’s going on by trying to understand it from the perspective of the testifying witness. And what they either said they saw thought heard or felt, or trying to imagine what they saw or thought heard or felt. But also being very clear in your role as a historian and acknowledging there are certain things you don’t know, and using kind of qualifying language about what might have happened, what they might have felt, even if they didn’t say it directly. And so I think this goes into that sort of embracing your identity as a writer, and reading more on the craft of writing, and things like world building, to help you think a lot more about all that’s happening in in the event that you’re describing. And again, we don’t get this kind of training in graduate school, you know, I, I feel like from the time I read for my exams, through maybe my second year as an associate as an assistant professor, I don’t think I read much, much fiction. And so you know, because it’s kind of driven out of you that the academic work is the most important work, it’s the only work you should be reading. And I started to come back to fiction, after I started on the tenure track, and I couldn’t make the switch over in time for they left great marks on me because I was on the Tinker track. But I wanted to think much more about that and much more about imagining a world. And I think a lot of that work already takes place in fiction, and we just haven’t thought about doing it. And we haven’t necessarily been encouraged to do it as historians. And so I wanted to embrace that. And one could say, I have my own little personal ministry, because I am spreading this gospel, about thinking more about like the audience, and you know, how they might be able to grasp the emotional, and historical significance of the stories we’re telling by telling them better. We’re just taking the facts, you know, it’s the same rigor goes into the research, and the analysis of the sources. It’s just the output that’s a little bit different. So I embrace that,
Kate Carpenter 27:08
I will happily be a disciple of this ministry, I do want to ask you, so these accounts are obviously hard to read, I have to imagine they’re even harder to encounter so much in your research, and grapple with them. How do you take care of yourself, as a writer, as you work on these projects?
Kidada Williams 27:25
You might not like my answer to this question. So I’ll say they are hard. But I’m clear. And I think we all need to be clear about the divide between reading about these, reading about this from the comfort of the 21st century, and actually experiencing it. And I think sometimes people they blur the lines, historians blur the lines in ways that trouble me. I think that researching violence requires an ethic of care to our research subjects. So we should care for ourselves. But we should also care for our research subjects. And so I am very clear on separating right holding space for devoting myself to understanding what the survivor wanted known about what happened to them and what they were able to say and communicate in the space where they told their story. And my own reaction to what I’m seeing in the records. And I think that’s important, because if a researchers personal trauma is awakened by the sources, I think their research should stop. And I don’t think we as a profession, I don’t think we’ve had conversations about the ethics of that work continuing, as long as a scholar hasn’t worked through their own personal emotional issues. And I think not acknowledging that not addressing that not establishing a praxis or an ethics about what we should be doing runs the risk of harming the researcher, and compromising their interpretation of the sources. I don’t know that we can be adequate witnesses of survivors testimonies, if our own an address or unrealized trauma is unresolved when we when we examine these records. So interesting, thank you. Some people make some people may not like that answer. But I have seen a lot of people kind of throw around the word trauma. What I can also tell from the language that they’re using is that they haven’t read much of the scholarship on trauma. They haven’t read like a lot of the scholarship coming out or critical trauma studies, because they throw it around too casually. And it makes me question some of the work that they’re doing. And it does raise questions for me about their interpretation and analysis. And yeah, like I said, that’s it’s not an easy or it’s not an answer that I think will comfort a lot of historians, some of them may feel offended, but I’m here for the conversation. Like convince me otherwise, that your unrealized trauma being awakened by the sources you’re examining doesn’t need to be addressed for you, for the subjects and for any history that you produce.
Kate Carpenter 30:03
You’ve alluded to the podcast Seizing Freedom, which you host and write, and I’d love to hear more about that. And I’m especially curious how writing for the podcast has affected your writing overall.
Kidada Williams 30:13
so much, so much. It’s changed it. But I also had a lot of help from our amazing creator, Kelly Jones. And the other writers and storytellers, from the other producers and the voice actors, their master storytellers. They just happen to work in audio. And they taught me so much about what works, what doesn’t, how to be more effective, how to try to build suspense into the story or to leave it out. And so I feel like I learned as much from them about how to tell the story as they did for me about the facts of the history. And so from my own work, I had to be more deliberate about thinking about the sensory write thinking about how readers might read it on the page, how they might hear it in the audiobook. And whether or not I was in whether or not I was doing the story, whether or not I was doing the sources justice, in how I was using them. So when you ask that question earlier about, when do you explain versus when do you get out of the way, working on the podcast taught me a lot about that? Because I’d be in my head as a historian, and they’d be like, nope, nope, nope, none of that.
Kate Carpenter 31:26
You’ve mentioned both within the podcast and a few other places about the importance of getting feedback from other people, do you have a regular writing community that you’re part of?
Kidada Williams 31:34
I do, actually, I have two. I’ve had this writing accountability group for more than a decade now. And what we were really doing was were we are an interdisciplinary bunch from history, African American Studies, and African American Lit. And we were all on a tenure track together, we saw each other through tenure and promotion, through childbirth, and all of these other things. But what we really tried to do was to hold each other accountable and to support each other when it comes to writing. But what I realized after, as I was finishing up, They Left Great Marks on Me, what I realized was that I needed more than that. And what I needed were people who were reading drafts on a regular basis. And so it wasn’t until I was almost finished with I Saw Death Coming, that I created a very different writing group. And this writing group, we are all historians, we’re all interested in communicating to a larger audience. We all are experts in African American history, we’re all in mid career. And so we know we know the archive, that you know, even though we’re studying on different topics, and different historical eras, we know that archive and we know the scholarship. And the main purpose of the group is to take a project from the seed of an idea through readers reports. And so we read drafts, we read outlines, we read paragraphs, we will even read the readers reports in case one of us is having a hard time trying to parse like what what’s being expected of us and what we need to do and what we want to do. And we meet every two weeks. And everyone, you know, people submit as they need to as they want to, but they can submit anything. Even from my I didn’t I wish I had created it earlier, because I would have had even more support writing I Saw Death Coming. But I have that support. Now for the project that I’m working on. And they have read, they have seen my experimentation with story arcs. You know, do I do a traditional arc of the history? Or do I experiment with this oscillating arc of hope and despair. So they have seen that they have seen like the initial writing proposal, we also share a lot of resources. So we’re taking some of us are taking classes on writing, which I highly recommend, and different aspects of writing. And we are sharing the insight that we have there, we’re sharing resources. And so like I can be a sometimes visual learner. And so I may take something I’ve learned in the class, and I will turn it into an image that I’ll share with the group. And so that’ll help me visualize, and then they’ll be able to see. So with the oscillating hope and despair, I outline, I put the outline for chapter so instead of in a traditional like paper outline, they’re able to see the oscillating hope and despair in the arc of the story that I’m telling. So we do a lot of that kind of sharing, and then taking some of the same classes, even if we’re not taking them at the same time. What we’re also doing is holding each other accountable for things that we should have learned and applied in whatever it is we’re writing that we learned in class, but we did not deliver on the page. So sometimes it’s like, do you remember in class when they discussed this? And so like, you know, like, you know, like, like that’s been really, really effective. And so I highly recommend that kind of writing support, it’s not easy to create, you kind of have to have people who are on the same page, who can get on the same page, who really, when they say they want feedback, they really want feedback, like not, I would love for you to read this and tell me everything is fantastic with it. You don’t want those people in the writing group, you want people in the writing group who are like, I see where you’re going, right, I understand where you’re going, I think that you could deliver this, or you could sort of do this a little bit more effectively, if you consider a, b and c and x, y, and z. Now, the writer doesn’t have to accept any of our feedback. But they understand that we know the scholarship, we have an understanding of publishing, we have a different and we have a better understanding of audience. We know the historiography, and we kind of know what works and what doesn’t. And so when we make a suggestion, a lot of the suggestions are really, really specific. So it’s not kind of vague. And that specificity enables the author or enables the writer to decide whether or not that will work for them, or it won’t. And so we push each other. So just like I talked about my ministry, they are part of the ministry. And I have been sort of nudging them to think about this sort of larger audience. And what I’ve been able to see over the almost two years since we got started, is the change in their writing. Right. And in talking to them, they love writing in a way that they didn’t think they did before. And they’re embracing the craft, they’re learning more about the craft, they’re experimenting with, you know, the sensory, and what works and what doesn’t, what do you put first, second, and third, they’re trying to build suspense. They’re doing all of these things. And they’re loving the work in the process. And I think that that matters, too, because we often think about writing as academics, for tenure and promotion to get the pay increase to get a contract about contracts, etc. We don’t necessarily think about feeding our souls as academics, and writing, if that’s something that you love, and something that you embrace can be one of those things that does that. And so we support each other in that process in the writing.
Kate Carpenter 37:15
That’s fantastic. This makes me so happy to hear I love love that. Well, I’m curious, what what’s some of the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Kidada Williams 37:23
Figure out what works for you. Everything ain’t for everybody. And you know, and that means everything. You know, the thing that works for one writer, writing every day for 15 minutes, may not work for you. And that’s okay, whatever gets the job done. That’s what matters. And this wasn’t a piece that I received directly. But it was something that I learned of through A.J. Verdelle’s book, Miss Chloe, which is on her relationship with Toni Morrison, who was very much a mentor for her. And Toni Morrison said, Never sell an unfinished book. And what she meant by that is, before you run and try to get a contract, you really need to have an understanding of the book you want to write. And so what that means is that you need to have largely finished the book. And that’s what I did, going into both of my into both of my books, and I didn’t get that going, then that turned out to be my experience. And it was affirmed by Morrison, through A.J. Verdelle. For my first book, I didn’t want to reach out to editors too early, because I wanted to figure out what the heck I was doing, and what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. There was a time you know, I love feedback. Anyone, like people were in my writing group, I’m like, show me pull it apart, but help me pull it back together. But in order to get to that, I need to know where the story is going, I need to know what the evidence revealed, I need to know the answer to the question that I have. And what I want is help in help in sort of honing that and making sure I deliver that story effectively on the page. But if you sell the book too early, you haven’t been you haven’t for yourself figured out what the book is going to be about. So what can sometimes happen and this is what Toni Morrison told A.J. Verdelle, what can sometimes happen is that the book you end up writing isn’t the book the press wanted you to write. And so you run into all kinds of problems there. But part of that comes from you not knowing where you were going in writing the book, you had an idea, but by the time you get it out on the page, that may not be what the publisher wanted. And so you have to address this and A.J. Verdelle I believe said that Toni Morrison did that once. She sold an unfinished book and she would never do it again. And but she wouldn’t of course, Toni Morrison would not reveal which book she sold unfinished, right? Right. And so like, I feel like that’s for me like, those are some of my lessons, everything for everybody, figure out what works for you and never sell an unfinished book and get a writing group, get a good writing group. But everyone, but everyone can’t be in your writing group. You got to sort of like know who is good at giving feedback and receiving feedback.
Kate Carpenter 40:22
I know when it when it comes to talking about inspiration, you’ve mentioned fiction several times. Are there specific people you read for inspiration?
Kidada Williams 40:29
Not really specific people. Like I like I like Karin Slaughter, I love how she tells a story. I love how she adds humor to it. I love Louise Penny, for the sort of mysteries and the suspense and how she delivers a story. And it’s an you know, there’s these amazing lines in there that I think, Oh, if I could just recreate those lines, and of course, Toni Morrison and all of the sort of great African American greats, Gayl Jones. So I, you know, I read a lot of fiction, I do the I do the Goodreads challenge every year. And I set like I said, a modest goal of 45 books. And sometimes I’ll hit 70. But it’s never enough fiction. Every year, I look at how many books I’ve read. And you know, I think if I have if half of the books are fiction, I have done my part two, only half of the books are not fiction. But the fiction that I do read I love I’m also in a writing. I’m also in a reading group, a book club with these amazing black judges and lawyers in Metro Detroit. And they often nudged me to read books that I wouldn’t normally read. And so that’s been gratifying, because I, you know, encountered different authors, and their different ways of storytelling that I wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to. So I, when I say I read a lot, I read a lot. And I read outside of history, a lot to psychology, etc. I also read outside of US history a lot. And that’s because a mentor in graduate school, the amazing Elsa Barkley Brown, when I came to her saying that I had, I was looking for models to tell the history of violence the way I want it, you know, a model in US history to to tell histories of how African Americans are experiencing racist violence. And she laughed. And she said, she said, Well, that’s your first mistake, you got to stop looking into us, you got to look to the scholars who are in conflict zones, you got to look at people who are studying a global conflict, what came to be the field of postcolonial studies, because they have a better understanding of grasping the significance of this violence for people who are targeted. And so that, you know, I, I probably wouldn’t have read Alexievich’s work if I hadn’t had that great advice.
Kate Carpenter 42:48
Before I let you go, can I ask you if there’s anything you’re you’re willing to talk about, that you’re working on now?
Kidada Williams 42:54
Um, I can talk about I can talk about one project that I’m working on right now, I am researching the history of rape politics in Detroit, from the 1970s through the discovery of the 11,346 untested kits. And so it’s, you know, I do hard history. But I also think I have the I also think I have the discipline and the ethic to do this history, some of the things we talked about before in terms of making sure that I carve out that space to give my subjects the time and attention they need and to adequately witness their testimonies about what happened to them. And so I’ve already started writing for that. But that’s the sort of heart and ugly drafting, like, so I have like a draft of some, and it’s the hottest of messes, but I will go back in and cleaned it up. And so with my research process, like I quickly read, like I devoted, like two years to combing through the newspapers to major newspapers for reporting on rape in the city. So I was able to identify the kinds of stories I want to tell and figure out where I need to conduct additional research. I’ve already interviewed some of the major players, which is really important because they are all older now. And so like I need to conduct and I’ve tried to conduct as many interviews as I can with people who are alive during this time period. So that means police, police chiefs, associate mayor’s prosecutors, anti rape activists, some of the pioneers in Michigan. So I’ve been able to like have reporters, I’ve been able to have some of those conversations, and conduct some of those interviews. So I’m really looking forward to the writing of that.
Kate Carpenter 44:41
Sounds amazing. Dr. Williams, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past. This has been an amazing conversation. I feel like I’ve gotten the sermon in your ministry on writing.
Kidada Williams 44:50
Thank you so much for having me.
Kate Carpenter 44:52
A big thank you once more to Dr. Kidada Williams and, as always, to you for listening. You can find links to the books and projects that we mentioned at draftingthepast.com. This show is freely available to everyone, but if you’re in a position to help financially support the show and keep it going, please check out Drafting the Past on Patreon. In the meantime, don’t forget that friends don’t let friends write boring history.