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In this episode, I was so excited to finally talk with writer and historian Dr. Aaron Sachs. Aaron researches and teaches environmental history at Cornell, and he is the author of four books and one edited collection. I’ve been eager to talk with Aaron for several years, ever since I first heard about the Historians are Writers! group that he led at Cornell (should out to Daegan Miller and Laura Martin who mentioned the group to me). We talked about that and the two books that Aaron has recently published: Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Recovery in Dark Times, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. And in April he published Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change. He is also the author of The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism and Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition. With John Demos, he also published the edited collection Artful History: A Practical Anthology.
MENTIONED IN THE SHOW
- Edwin Way Teale’s writing shack
- Verlyn Klinkenbourg, Several Short Sentences About Writing
- John Demos
- Historians Are Writers! (HAW!)
- Jenny Price, Stop Saving the Planet!
- Rebecca Solnit
- Lauren Redniss
- James Baldwin
- Wallace Stegner
- Guy Davenport
- New Directions in Narrative History series from Yale University Press, edited by Aaron Sachs and John Demos
Hello, and welcome back to Drafting the Past! I’m your host Kate Carpenter, and this is a podcast all about the craft of writing history. Before we get to the interview, I want to say a quick thanks for your patience while I’ve been taking a break. I’m delighted to report that I had a healthy baby boy in April, but so far he’s not a very effective producer, so things have been a little slower around here. That said, I’m so excited to be getting back to the interviews I recorded earlier this spring.
This episode features an interview with writer and historian Dr. Aaron Sachs. Aaron researches and teaches environmental history at Cornell, and he is the author of four books and one edited collection. I’ve been excited to talk with Aaron for several years, ever since I first heard about the Historians are Writers! group that he led at Cornell. We talked about that and the two books that Aaron has recently published: Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Recovery in Dark Times, which was a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. And in April he published Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change. As a quick note, we spoke back in March, so you’ll hear us talking about this book as forthcoming, but in fact it is out now, and you can—and should!—get a copy. In the meantime, enjoy our conversation.
I started off in college, very interested in writing. I also graduated during a recession in 1992 and it was not easy to find a job where I could pursue writing. I wasn’t brave enough, I guess, to just try to be a writer flat out. But I really got lucky with my first job after trying for several months. I landed at a nonprofit environmental organization called the Worldwatch Institute which was a place where they basically did research and writing. And my favorite part of that job was getting to write articles for their bi-monthly magazine. And that really fed my desire to keep writing and to write in a way that was broadly accessible, let’s say, and more creative. And eventually then I went on to graduate school because I really enjoyed my job at Worldwatch, but it was in a way, a little bit too sort of policy oriented for my tastes, and I really missed the humanities.
I have always loved teaching and wanted that to be a part of my life. So I found myself going to graduate school for a PhD in American Studies, but I said to myself, I only want to do this if I get to write the way I want to write within the academy. And that was a journey. It was a bit of a struggle at times, but again, I feel like I got really, really lucky and I found the right professors and advisors who encouraged me in that. And then I moved forward from there and made it my professional goal as an academic historian to combine serious scholarship and creative writing. That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.
So I have a lot of questions about all of that, but I want to start with just these practical questions to find out a little bit more about how you-
Sure, of course.
As a writer. When and where do you do your writing?
That has definitely changed over time. So I teach at Cornell, and I moved here in 2004. It was my first job out of graduate school, and I had a nine-month-old child. I was really committed to when I was at home, being at home, being part of the family. So I wrote exclusively at my campus office, and that’s the way it was for several years. My wife and I had two more children after that, and that was wonderful. It remained important to me to just always be present when I was at home and not distracted by my work.
So for I guess 15 years I just wrote in my office in McGraw Hall. And then to be blunt, I inherited some money and we moved houses, and I was able to build a little garage slash writing studio in our new backyard. It’s amazing. This was right before the pandemic. It was a year before the pandemic. So during that year, it was one of the best writing times of my life where I felt like this was… This is where I am right now and it was really a sanctuary for me, and it was something I had dreamed about for a very, very long time after having… I went on this random hike in Connecticut when I was in graduate school.
Part of the hike went on to an old property owned by the writer, kind of a nature writer named Edwin Way Teale and he had a writing shed in the backyard, and I read the plaques and learned about how this was a place that he used. It was tiny little space, but it was exclusively for writing. He didn’t use it for anything else. Ever since that moment I was like, “Oh, that would be amazing to have something like that.”
Yeah. Once the pandemic hit, I had to start using this as my classroom. So it feels a little different now, but I still feel so incredibly lucky and grateful to have this dedicated space.
Do you have a routine? Do you write at certain times of the day?
It’s different every day and every project. I mean you know about academia? I mean, every academic year is different. The ideal for me is those rare, rare times when I’m on sabbatical and can just imagine a day purely devoted to writing. One of those days would be getting up, getting the kids to school, having breakfast, going to write for three to four hours, going for a swim because I have a bad back eating lunch and then writing for three or four more hours. And that’s the day, and that hardly ever happens.
So with the most recent book that I published, which came out last June, writing that book coincided with a sabbatical and the building of my writing studio. So I did have a few months where every day was like that, and it was really one of the most incredible periods of my life. It was so exhilarating. It also helped along by the fact that on this particular project, I had been doing the reading and the research for many, many years already, and I was truly ready to write.
With many writing projects for me anyway, it’s like you’re ready to write one chapter and then you have to go back and research more and think more and then some other time you’re ready to write the next chapter. But with this, I had first of all very short chapters and second of all, lots of background, and I was really ready to write the whole thing.
I got on this role, and this is not typical, not representative, but I like talking about it because it was so amazing. I got onto this role where I was writing a chapter a week, and each chapter was only about 10 pages. It’s a book. The plan for the book was 36 chapters, and that felt so incredible to just be immersed in that and to have this space to do it in. I don’t know if that will ever happen again, but I’m glad that I got to experience it once.
Yeah. Man, that does sound amazing. What are your systems like in terms of organizing your sources, putting things together?
I’m pretty old-fashioned. It’s not index cards, but it’s close. I have tried some of the programs that people use these days, but ultimately what I come back to is I have notes on my laptop and then in some cases, handwritten notes. I really like to read books, like physical books. And so for the last project, which was about Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford, both of whom published a whole lot of books. Part of the pleasure of that project was just reading those physical books. And when I read a physical book, I like to mark it up with a pencil, and then I go back over the book and I have just regular lined paper, and I take notes on the notes that I’ve taken inside the book.
And then part of my process is to just constantly reread my notes that I have on the lined paper. When I have notes on my laptop, I will print those up, many, many, many pages worth so that I have a hard copy and I can constantly flip through and get the stuff into my head that I need for whatever I’m writing in the moment. So pretty analog.
What does revision look like for you?
So I think that it’s a little hard for me to talk about revision because, “Okay, I should just defer to this quotation, I guess.” I’ve read a lot of books about writing and I’ve written about some of those books, and I’ve really tried to be self-conscious about this sort of thing. One of my favorite books about writing is called Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
He has many mantras in that book, but one of them is revise at the point of composition. And that has always been my method. I don’t know how that might sound to people, just off the top of my head. I think of it as a certain kind of discipline, but I don’t want to… I don’t want it to be misunderstood as the discipline that prevents people from ever writing anything. I really think it’s a very, very personal thing, how people write. And having taught writing quite a bit, I can say that I know that there are lots of different techniques that work for different people.
And some people are people who just need to write very, very quickly, whatever comes out. And then they spend a huge amount of time revising afterwards. And my method is slower. I make progress more slowly, but I really try to refine sentences in my head before I put them down on the page and I really try to make sure that each sentence follows in a connected and resonant way the previous sentence. I really focus on transitions a lot when I’m writing a first draft.
So my first drafts, and again, I hope this doesn’t come out the wrong way. I’ve taken a lot of flack from… I’ve been in many, many writing groups and some of my compatriots in the writing groups have yelled at me and been like, “Come on, we’re making ourselves vulnerable with our rough drafts. Why don’t you show us something really rough?” It’s a little embarrassing to say, but I don’t really write super rough drafts.
It’s not that my drafts are polished, but they’re pretty clean, and that’s the way my method is. And then of course, I do a lot of revising and tweaking, and I really like being in a writing group, and I get lots of advice about how to change things, and I really enjoy doing that, but it’s different for every piece. I guess I come back to that piece of advice from Klinkenborg of really trying to revise at the point of composition.
I think that’s great. I tell people all the time that if the show has a thesis, it’s that there’s no one way to be a writer.
I think that’s great. I also love that book, and you’re the first guest who’s ever mentioned it, I’m very pleased. I mean, I’m excited to talk to you about your own work, which is wonderful. But I also am really excited to talk to you because multiple people have mentioned the historians as writers group at Cornell to me.
So I was wondering if you could tell me what it is, how it started, and why it was important to you?
Sure. Yeah. So Historians Are Writers!
Are writers, sorry.
That’s okay. We usually just call it HAW. That’s been one of the… I mean, maybe I should start by saying it’s essentially defunct now, which is really, really sad. I would be happy to talk more about that. But it was probably the most important part of my career, I would say. It started with my first PhD advisee. Shout-out to Dagan Miller, who started here in 2006. And from the beginning, one of the reasons that we were working together is that he was always interested in being a writer as well as a scholar.
He got to Cornell and entered the PhD program, and we were doing an independent study, and we talked about what we could read, and he started talking about how nobody in any of the other classes he was taking was talking about writing at all. It just wasn’t a thing. And that led me to describe this experience that I had in graduate school myself, which was hugely formative to me, where it was a group that was just called writing history. And the faculty mentor for that was John Demos at Yale and he was hugely… He still is a hugely important mentor for me. So grateful for him and everything that he stands for in terms of just humanity and kindness as well as scholarship and writing.
But that group that I was a part of in graduate school was a forum to talk about writing and to share writing with each other and to read things that we found inspiring. So I told Deagan about that, and he was like, “Let’s do it here.” And I was like, “Yep, I’m on it.” This was a time from about, I would say 2006 until the Pandemic, although it already felt like there were some challenges before the pandemic, but for a nice long run there, it felt like there was space in the academy for people who wanted to do scholarship and creative writing.
HAW as a group attracted graduate students from many different departments. We tended to meet often at my house, but somebody’s house in the evening with wine and chocolate. It felt very informal, and it felt very just inspiring because most of what we did in HAW was just read anything that anybody was interested in reading across every genre you could imagine, comic books, plays, poetry, novels, short stories. Lots and lots of creative nonfiction.
These were graduate students and the occasional professor, and we all have way too much reading to do all the time. And yet we showed up every three or four weeks, totally excited to have read this extra thing because it was… For all of us, it was like, “Oh, remember when we used to just get pleasure from reading stuff? That really kept us all afloat and gradually a core group formed, and the older people in the group became mentors to the younger people in the group. And there were certain traditions and sentiments that got passed on. We really, really trusted each other and really felt like we were helping each other.
Sometimes we read our own work and did critical workshops on each other’s writing. We did that. We focused especially on the writing and the style and the voice and the tone, and not on the scholarship or the historiography or anything like that. It was just a completely different kind of workshop. So you can tell, I think, from my voice how exciting it was and how just grateful I was to be a part of that. It really was an incredibly rich intellectual and artistic community, and I’m really sad.
It’s basically as the market, the academic job market got worse and worse in the teens. I think it was much harder for graduate students to feel like they could spend time doing creative work, doing extra work. There was so much focus on just how might it be possible to get a job with these terrible odds. So there was less interest in HAW in general. We shouldn’t make this into a therapy session for me, but I’m still trying to figure out if this is just over or if there’s some other way of doing it that could be helpful to people.
It meant so much to me to be able to be a mentor specifically to those kinds of students who they really wanted to be academic scholars, but they didn’t see any reason why they couldn’t also be creative writers. And that was a sentiment I shared, and I relished getting to support people in doing that and sad not to be as actively doing that anymore.
Can I just ask?
I don’t know how much you’re willing to talk about yourself, but what’s your experience with all of this, and how do you see it playing out in the academy right now?
I have always wished for more conversation about writing as Craft and the academy. It was the big reason I started the show, which coincided with me sitting down to start writing my dissertation. I always was that weirdo in seminars who wanted to ask, why did you choose this narrative structure? How did you organize your notes for this? And it felt like there wasn’t a place for that. So yeah, I totally see that. And it seems like, as I’ve talked to people, one professor who’s dedicated to talking about writing can make a huge difference for people.
So there are some grad students who’ve taken amazing classes on writing history, but unless there’s that person with that commitment, it gets left out of the process. It is interesting though, because I feel like, at least from my observations, it seems like people who really want to try for an academic position do potentially feel more constrained these days about how they could write. There’s a real nervousness about doing anything else.
But I think the flip side of that is that a lot more graduate students realize that if they’re going to keep writing history, they’re going to need to find a way to do it in a more public facing way for a trade market and are interested in writing.
Yeah. I’ve been very aware of that, and that has made me hopeful at times, but I guess I’m not in a history department that has been willing to restructure itself to accommodate that kind of interest. It’s understandable. I mean, it’s an old-fashioned, traditional academic history department, and so it makes sense that most of the people in the department what they’re focusing on is trying to find the applicants who could potentially make it as academics.
I feel like we would really need to change things in order to create a culture where we were also providing support and an education for people who wanted to do public facing history. So anyway, I applaud any departments out there that are actually doing that.
Yes. So I want to turn to ask a little bit about Up from the Depths, your most recent book, and I want to talk practically on the page. So if you don’t mind, sure, if you’re up for it, I’ll have you read this excerpt.
Yeah. So this is very near the beginning of the book, and the book alternates its chapters between focusing on Herman Melville and focusing on Lewis Mumford who was a biographer of Herman Melville among other things. And this is a Melville chapter, although it has some stuff on Mumford as well. And the background for getting into this excerpt is that it’s a passage that started off talking about Melville’s 1857 novel, The Confidence Man.
But then I do a little break and I’ll start reading something that’s different from The Confidence Man, but then it comes back to The Confidence Man. Anyway, here we go. In the famous chapter of Moby Dick called the Whiteness of the Whale, Melville wrote with horror of the dumb blankness, full of meaning in a wide landscape of snows, a colorless all color atheism from which we shrink. I picture him shrinking at the farmhouse he and his family owned in the Berkshires from 1850 until 1863, staring out at the fields and forests and mountains during the long New England winter.
Sometime during that span of years Melville crossed the narrow line between faith and doubt. A blanketing of fresh snow can soften a landscape can seem clean and calming, or it can drain away living color so that the countryside becomes dull, pale, sickly. It depends on your perspective. Mumford would be the first to insist that Melville did not surrender for he kept on writing to the end of his days. But The Confidence Man clearly represented a crisis of confidence. The book itself, Mumford thought, revealed that sweetness and morality had become for Melville, the greatest of frauds.
Later, in a letter to a friend, Mumford called the novel, “A product of Melville’s Madness written with only sand and thirst for inspiration.” Mumford believed that by 1858, Melville had regained possession of himself, but for a long time afterward, he would be prone to depression and violent mood swings, which tormented his family.
So I have to tell you first that I really loved this book.
Thank you. Oh, I appreciate it.
I’m curious, so I picked this passage in part just because it has several good examples of you making awfully choices that are choices that a lot of historians and academics especially don’t make. Right? So there’s some first person in here, there’s even a little bit of second person. You imagine where he’s sitting. Are those choices that you make consciously while you’re working, or is that part of your voice?
It’s both. I definitely am conscious of wanting to make choices that are unusual for academic writing, but I also have been writing this way for such a long time that it’s fairly natural for me to do it. We could spend many hours just talking about the use of the first person, but I think of it as another writing tool that we have to shake things up and add variety and humanize what it is that we’re doing.
I guess also in this passage, there’s a fair amount of almost like philosophizing, and that is something that’s really important to me. I really like… “Well, I try to write things that are similar to what I love to read, and I love it when what I’m reading has layers to it.” So that in a history book, you might be deep inside or a novel for that matter, you might be inside a particular historical moment and texture or even a scene. And then there’s a moment like what Melville does where the author pulls back and says something philosophical about whiteness. And that’s very exciting to me.
To me, there’s no reason why you can’t have both things happening simultaneously, the immediate scene and the philosophy. So that’s definitely part of what I try to do. Writing specifically about Melville, I definitely was trying to write. I hope that doesn’t sound presumptuous, but I try to write like Melville to some extent, try to take inspiration from the way he plays with form and structure and seems to create a form and structure that go along with his subject matter. That’s, to me, the most beautiful, satisfying thing to read is where the form really fits perfectly with the subject.
One thing that makes this book so narratively interesting and I suspect would’ve make it challenging to write is that there’s this telescoping aspect happening where there’s Melville, there’s Mumford, there’s Mumford writing about Melville, and then there’s you and you writing about Mumford and about Melville. Was it hard to balance those voices and those perspectives?
Yeah, I mean, it was definitely a challenge, but it was a really fun challenge to work with. For everything that I write, the structure of it is just as important and just as enticing as the subject matter. And so from the moment I conceived of this project, I conceived of it as having short alternating chapters between the two subjects. And I knew what you were saying about Mumford commenting on Mel. It’s like, “Okay, the Mumford chapters are going to be mostly about Mumford, but then in the Melville chapters, I’ve got to be able to use what Mumford said about Melville as part of it. And so just inherently those chapters are going to be feel more sort of intermingled between the two characters.
I have to be some sort of presence in all of the chapters. So the book that I published before, this one has a ton of first person. It’s like maybe 65% history and 35% memoir. So I wanted to do something very different in this book. So the first person is actually not very present in this book, but you’re the author, you have to comment, so you are a presence no matter what. But it was fun. It was just really exciting to figure out how to make the alternating chapters work.
I have to say, I got lots of pushback, lots of skepticism, and that was all really helpful to me in figuring out how to make sure that it did make sense, how to make the juxtapositions between the chapters really, really meaningful so that I didn’t want to make it too obvious. I never liked to hit readers over the head, but to make sure that there were enough pleasing resonances to make the reader feel like it’s worthwhile to lose the thread of one story. It’s like you’re reading along about Herman Melville. You’re in the 19th century for 10 pages, and then boom, suddenly you’re in the 20th century with Lewis Mumford. And that some of my early readers made it clear that that was quite jarring for them, and they wanted to know, “Why are you doing this?”
So that also forced me to refine what I say at the beginning of the book about… And that’s always a very tricky thing for me because I don’t want to explain anything away. I really dislike introductions that tell you everything you need to know about the book before you get into it. So there was this fine line that I found myself walking, which was a really interesting writing challenge. I had a fair amount of angst about it because my instinct is to not say very much at the beginning and just let our reader be immersed and figure it out for themselves, but ultimately, I got enough pushback that I felt like I had to say a little bit more. Ultimately, I think that helped. I think it helps orient people, or at least just get them a little bit more prepared for the head spinning structure.
I’m sure not on accident. It reminded me of reading Moby Dick where you’re right there on the ship, and then of course you’re pulled in another direction. I know from reading the prologue to your next book that you dealt with some personal challenges while you were working on Up from the Depths, including some family members health issues. How did you deal with researching and writing during that time? And maybe a better question is how did you get back to it after that?
Yeah. So Melville has this great line in his book White Jacket about Cape Horn and the metaphorical Cape Horn that every person has. At some point in your life, you have to go around Cape Horn, and some people have good weather and make it no problem and other people very nearly go down with the ship. Mumford actually loved to quote that constantly throughout his life. And he had many Cape Horns in his life and I’ve had a few.
Well, how can I put this? I don’t think there’s any formula for how you get back to your life. I guess one thing I learned was just to be really patient with yourself and understanding kind to yourself. I say that in the context… It’s like this… We’re talking about life in the academy and most of us who find ourselves here have a pretty high standard for, shall we say, productivity, and feel like we should be working a lot of the time. Sometimes you just can’t and that’s really okay. I really try to reinforce that with my students who feel an incredible amount of pressure as all graduate students do.
Life is way more important than work. Even when work is a really crucial part of your life. I draw a huge amount of satisfaction and fulfillment from various aspects of my work. But I guess I just eventually reached a point where getting back to work was helpful in the coping with trauma that I was trying to do. And I feel very lucky that eventually happened. I don’t think I did anything to make it happen. I think it just worked itself out and I was… Especially now also having gone through the pandemic.
What you were referring to before, I think was I had both parents suffer from pretty bad cases of dementia. So over a number of years, it was that classic sandwich generation. I was trying to raise young kids, and I was also trying to take care of really ailing parents. And dementia is a really complicated and disorienting disease. So it was hard to do any work during those years. And then I thought that was my Cape Horn but then the pandemic happened, and that’s definitely been another Cape Horn for many people.
It has made me realize that there are just cycles to life, and sometimes you can work and sometimes you can’t. I just try to be grateful for the times that I can like I was describing with up from the depths when I had a really, really nice run of a few months. But certainly I have found it incredibly challenging to do any creative work during the last three years.
I mean, just trying to persevere. The other thing I would say is that the two genres that I found most helpful in coping with trauma were history and comedy. I feel like you need perspective and history and comedy are both really good at that.
Well, that’s kind of a perfect transition to talk about your next book coming out. It looks really interesting and really fun, and it seems to kind of have a different tone maybe than some of your other work. So could you talk a little bit about what it is, but also how it came about?
Sure. It’s never happened to me before and I’m sure will never happen again, that I have two books coming out in two consecutive years. But both of these were written before The Pandemic and this new one that’s coming out, which is called Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change is a very, very short. It’s literally one quarter the length of Up from the Depths. It’s under a hundred pages and it’s meant to be a very light, fun read. I wrote it in 2018 for the most part.
I mean, I definitely have expanded it and revised it a lot since then, but I wrote it before I wrote Up from the Depths, and it was just rejected over and over again back then. It just didn’t seem to be the right cultural moment for dark comedy and climate change. But we’re in a different moment now, and I’m really, really glad that it finally found a home and is coming out. But this book came pretty specifically from my experience of trauma with Alzheimer’s disease in my parents.
I have lots of friends and colleagues and acquaintances who have gone through this or are going through this. Everybody sort of agrees that you just have to laugh because otherwise you’d be crying all the time. My turn toward comedy and the history and theory of comedy was quite personal in a way, but as soon as I started doing that out of psychological need, I also immediately connected it to climate change because a lot of us are… When I used the word trauma, I also got very… And this was not as productive for me psychologically, but I got very into trauma theory for a while and read a lot of that.
Anyway, trauma can mean many different things, but right now I really associate that word with what a lot of people are feeling about climate change. So anyway, the personal and the political suddenly connected for me. And I was also inspired by a friend of mine named Jenny Price, who was working through some of these same ideas about how comedy can be useful in the context of climate change. She even taught a class about that and shared some things with me.
I read a huge amount of not only history and theory of comedy, but comedic writing and thought about how one could learn to write comedically. So it became a writing challenge in addition to a new scholarly project. And it was so fun to write. I mean, it just was such a kind of different experience and liberating in so many ways. It’s very hard for me to say whether it was succeeding in its early drafts.
I don’t think that the version that’s about to be published is that different. But it’s possible that in the early versions, I was trying a little bit too hard to be funny in my writing. I was enthralled with that idea that you could learn how to be funny and even when you were writing something that was based on scholarship. But anyway, I think the ultimate takeaway for me is that it’s another useful thing to have in your writerly toolkit to just every now and then… Even in what is on the surface an entirely serious work of scholarship, you can crack a joke here and there, and the reader will probably enjoy it and appreciate it.
Some cranky readers will be like, “Well, that broke my flow or it felt too forced or artificial or whatever.” That’s fine. I mean, you’re always going to have different readers respond in different ways. But anyway, yeah.
I think I told you before this interview that I have often railed that I think that historians underutilized humor as a way to reach audiences. Do you feel like that’s a form of craft you can learn, that you can work on?
Absolutely. I mean, a big part of my practice of teaching writing is quite simple. It’s just let’s read stuff that is really, really good. As you know in the academy, especially in a PhD program program, nobody chooses the books based on how well they’re written. It’s just like, “We need to cover this field. Whatever the most important books are in this field, that’s what we need to read.” I get it. I totally understand it, but I want to do something different when I’m teaching writing.
What you read absolutely influences how you write. There’s just like, this has been studied and it’s very, very clear. I could talk about my own personal experience with this, but the point is, what I did was immerse myself in lots and lots of comedic writing. I mean I love standup comedy, and I would sit and watch standup specials whenever I had a spare hour. It’s craft. You can learn it. You can practice it.
I wrote a lot of stuff that will never be published and isn’t publishable, but that helped me learn. I remember an essay I wrote that I wound up giving to my wife as an anniversary present that that was called How Not To Yell At Your Kids. That was just basically practice in comedic writing. In HAW, we did this thing called a history slam every year for many years in a row and it’s like could stand up for five minutes and read anything you wanted.
So for a few years I was just trying to write comedic leads for the History Slam, and it was super fun. And I totally think you can learn. There are books out there that you can read that give you a formula for how to be funny in writing. I didn’t read those. I’m not really interested in those kinds of formulas, but I very much believe in the immersion method of just finding books that you find to be really, really funny and effective and reading a whole bunch of them and soaking up what they do in terms of technique, getting it in your heads and then trying it out and just continuing to write until you feel good about what you’re doing.
I suspect based on this conversation that the answer to this could keep us here for a long time.
I was going to maybe pick some… No, no, it’s great. But I’ll ask you to pick some favorites, but are there people who you read look to for inspiration?
Definitely. I mean, I do love to read in all different genres, but since what I write, I consider to be creative nonfiction. My most important inspiration is from other practitioners of creative nonfiction. Basically, SAS. I love Rebecca Solnit. I’ve been reading her for more than 20 years now. Her mind is so amazing. One of my favorite things about essays in general is the surprising connections that they make.
The genre is just made for to allow somebody’s mind to wander. And I just love the connections that she makes. I’ve also been reading a lot of Lauren Redness and she is graphic artist, so she does basically comic books, but nonfiction and they’re beautiful. Also, it’s just I really love thinking through the relationship between text and image. I’ve tried to do some of that in my work and I just love the way that she does it.
And then for more old standard sources of inspiration, I love James Baldwin’s essays and Wallace Stegner’s fiction and nonfiction. I’ll mention whom I use quite a bit in my teaching is this incredibly quirky guy named Guy Davenport who was an English professor at the University of Kentucky for many decades and wrote all sorts of things, lots and lots of short stories. So fiction, but also scholarship and also these really, really bizarre but gem-like creative nonfiction essays on almost any topic you could imagine. He just was so wide-ranging in his interests.
Some of the essays are two pages long, and I will use them in my writing classes, and I’ll just read out loud paragraph by paragraph. It’s just not everybody in the class, but many times I will look up from reading and people are just smiling because it’s just so beautiful, and clever, and fun. It’s so invested in the pleasure of language. So I love going back to him, even if it’s just reading two pages.
I’m curious, so you and John Demos co-edit this series for Yale University Press, which I think if I’m remembering, is called New Directions in Narrative History. And that name made me wonder, what do you wish you saw in narrative history? What new directions would you love to read?
I mean, we started that series just in the hope that it would be attractive, especially to younger scholars who wanted to write history as literature and wanted to have the in-premature of a university press, but editors who were open to absolutely any kind of, excuse me, experimentation. I don’t think he and I have ever been… We’re just not super directive kind of people. We never wanted to set an agenda for the profession. It was more like, “Here’s an open window and we really hope you throw something through it.”
I mean, it’s all right to be frank, again. It’s been absolutely wonderful to get to work on the books that we’ve been able to work on for that series. One of them has been hugely influential for me, actually inspired the structure of Up From The Depths. But over the years we’ve gotten very, very few submissions and the number has just decreased to almost none and the presses.
We had an original editor who was very enthusiastic about it, and he eventually retired, and the press has not been super interested in the series. It’s another thing I’m somewhat sad about. It’s been absolutely lovely to get to work with John and to work with all of the authors who have been in the series, but that also seems to be something that’s coming to an end.
Well, before I let you go, I would love to know if there’s anything you’re working on now that you’d be willing to talk about.
Sure. It’s on hold. I was working on a fair amount in the fall and over winter break, but it’s now on hold because of an intense teaching semester and another book coming out next month that I have to write things for and all that. But the project that I have been working on over the long term is about environmental justice. What I’m trying to do with that is unpack the idea of an environmental justice from a historical perspective.
So the environmental justice movement really as a movement dates to the 1980s. But what I’m trying to do in this book is to say that, “Well, there are ideas in Western history that have been bouncing around since at least the 17th century.” So what happens if we start to explore these ideas as precursors to the environmental justice movement and helpful perspectives for what we’re dealing with now.
This is something that I’ve been interested in for several decades. Actually, I worked on it when I was working at the Worldwatch Institute right after college in the mid-’90s. And the writing challenge for this particular project is that it’s just way more sweeping than anything I’ve ever done before. Right now I’ve mapped out six chapters and I have to cover 400 years. I’ve covered 100 years before, but I’ve never covered 400 years. And so yeah, it’s just a really interesting challenge to… I have to say, it’s hard to feel confident.
I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of scholarly expertise. When you are a scholar, you take some solace in when you’re a historian, I guess, in knowing a particular time period fairly well. I know the 19th century pretty well, but I do not know the 17th century very well. On the one hand, it’s been super fun to learn about other time periods and just read really widely and promiscuously as it were.
But I definitely have struggled to find… I mean, it’s also been the pandemic. It’s been really, really hard to find the time and energy. But I’ve had a couple of moments and I feel like I will be able to get back into it. It’s fun to try to develop that confidence to be able to say something, for instance, about the 17th century and to be able to figure out ways of covering a lot of ground without making it feel like it’s just one damn thing after another, one example, after another of a similar thing.
It’s been fun to stumble upon just the right case study or just suddenly remember some work of literature. Just to make this a little bit more concrete, when I was working on the 17th century, the main thing that I was focusing on was the diggers who were a group in England during the English revolution who basically claimed a hillside. It was common land, and they were like, “Look, we need a place to grow food. We’re going to camp out here and have this commune, essentially.”
But as I was working on the diggers, I was just reading around in 17th century British literature, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, paradise Lost. Totally has environmental justice aspects to it. So wow, now I write a whole section on Paradise Lost.” Anyways, it’s been fun and looking forward to getting back to it.
Fantastic. Well, Dr. Aaron Sachs, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past. This was such a great conversation.
Thank you for having me. It was really a pleasure.
Kate Carpenter: Thanks again to Dr. Aaron Sachs for taking the time to talk writing with me, and thanks to you for listening. Find links to all of the books we talked about—including Aaron’s recent works—in the show notes at DraftingthePast.com. Until next time, remember that friend don’t let friends write boring history.