A historian’s experiment in creative fiction

For an interdisciplinary seminar I’m taking this semester on the bourgeoisie and the city in the nineteenth century I decided to compose a work of creative fiction as my first paper rather than a traditional research essay. It was probably the first time I’ve written fiction since elementary school. Somehow I thought it would not only be more fun than writing a research essay, but faster as well. I was wrong on the latter point and not entirely right on the former. It took much longer than I expected and actually required a good bit of research beyond the course materials and theoretical approaches we were required to utilize and engage with. For a research essay or book review, I generally write at a rate of about an hour per page. (That is after I’ve completed all of my reading and outlining.) For this work of fiction I’d say I more than doubled the amount of time spent on each page.

Some of this was due to the additional research I conducted in an effort to make the fiction more immersive and hence more believable, but I also wasted a lot of time worrying about whether or not what I was writing was any good. This happens, to a degree, with anything I write. My professors, critics, and colleagues are often in my head as I outline and while I consider how to phrase a particular idea or argument. Eventually, of course, I have to kick them out and follow my instincts. Plus some are just too darn chatty to allow me to get anything done. But I found this process a bit more difficult when writing fictional narrative. As a student of history, I was quite self-conscious about writing fiction. Was I doing it right? Was I committing all kinds of literary sins, the very names of which I would be incapable of comprehending? What, I wondered, would the english-lit folks in class think if they ever read it?

Concerns aside, I was rather surprised to experience that old familiar feeling of satisfaction at having written something that effectively communicated my thoughts–while writing fiction! Who knew? Enter the fun aspect. I remain convinced that what I’ve produced is useful to my goal of understanding the lived experience of a person in a particular historical setting. I’ll leave it up to others to determine whether or not it contains any actual literary value. Posted below for your reading pleasure (or displeasure) is what I concocted.

The Legacy of Maxwell Montclaire

Maxwell Montclaire dressed himself swiftly and quietly. He preferred not to wake the young woman sleeping amid the tangle of sheets in the bed behind him. She breathed steadily and heavily in the dim, humid air, seeming completely at peace in her slumber. Maxwell wondered for a moment at her ability to achieve a deep sleep even in the presence of a virtual stranger. He supposed that somehow, from one night to the next, this woman had accustomed herself to her situation and that it must be her ability to accept whatever circumstances she found herself in at the end of her day that enabled her to enter the tranquil state in which she now rested. He regarded it as a remarkable achievement, but not one that he fully comprehended. Maxwell was a man of little means but much ambition, and he intended to rise in the world. To him, circumstances were a reality to rise above rather than accept and make peace with.

He returned his attention to his dress. As his long, slender fingers worked the buttons of his fine white linen shirt, Maxwell considered the reflection in the mirror before him. In his thick black hair, dark eyes, and aqualine nose Maxwell saw the traces of what the Montclaires had once been and the promise of what he could make them again. His features greatly resembled those of his grandfather, Gerard Montclaire, once a savvy merchant and the proud patriarch of a great family. As he righted his collar and made minute adjustments to his French blue-grey silken cravat, Maxwell called to mind the few clear memories of his grandfather he possessed. They were all quite similar.

In his mind’s eye he saw his grandfather, seated upon a sturdy parlor chair composed of rich, dark mahogany. The chair’s seat and backing were covered in a blood-red brushed velvet. His grandfather leaned intently over a letter desk carved of the same fine mahogany and made entries in an oversized book with a worn leather binding. Now and then he paused, lips moving silently, and dipped his silver-tipped pen into an ornate inkwell wrought in the form of a lion. The carpet at his feet bore ornate Turkish patterns at its borders and seemed as thick and full as moss on a deep forest floor. The heavy smell of cigar smoke, cognac, and furniture polish hung in the air. Nearly all of Maxwell’s memories of his grandfather were set in the old family parlor, yet he could not recall a single instance of his grandfather truly at leisure in the domestic space. There were, to be true, a few sparse memories of his grandfather reading a heavy book in the parlor, his pale white hands gently fingering the luminously gilded edge of a page as he contemplated the text. Maxwell could even recall his grandfather savoring a luxuriant evening meal in the elegant dining room, glass of fragrant dark wine sparkling in his hand under the delicate glow of the crystal chandelier. But it seemed that Gerard Montclaire had always moved with the family firm somewhere in his mind. And although he was only a boy of eight at the time of his grandfather’s death, Maxwell’s memories of the man left him with the strong impression that his grandfather had been a man of the utmost seriousness, dignity, and dedication. Of course, in those days things had been quite different for the Montclaires.

The family had once been held in high regard in their native country. The Montclaires may not have been noblesse ancienne, but they were widely respected throughout France’s tightly-woven circles of commerce and exchange. The exploitation of military conflict was their specialty, and Gerard Montclaire in particular was known for his uncanny ability to predict the route the Montclaire wares would need to take in the event that hostilities erupted. He always seemed to know not only exactly what needed to be ready to move but also when the best time to move it was. He had been just a child during the Napoleonic Wars, but it was said that he cut his teeth in the arms business by selling to the révoltés in the weeks leading up to the Trois Glorieuses. In fact, this was Gerard Montclaire’s first great victory for the family and was celebrated as an assurance that his generation would not merely contribute to the family legacy but build upon it. By the time of the conquest of the Algerian territories, Gerard had ascended to brokering a large share of the nation’s weapons and matériel purchases. His dealings in the Revolutions of 1848 solidified his reputation as a man highly adept at foreign commerce and reliable as a source of essential goods in times of widespread chaos. But it was his timely shipment of guns and ammunition to the Allies on Brassey and Peto’s Grand Crimean Central Railway during the Siege of Sevastopol”s late November starving time that earned him the most fame—as well as record returns.

By then the situation of the family seemed so secure that none of them could imagine a future in which the Montclaires did not continue to rise. Their grand stone estate on the western edge of Le Marais, near Paris’ business district in the deuxième arrondissemont, regularly hosted esteemed guests from every corner of the nation. The family enjoyed sumptuous surroundings, the finest food, the latest fashions, and one of the best wine collections north of Burgundy. Although Maxwell’s father, Bernhard Montclaire, seemed to possess none of Gerard’s commercial savvy or instinctual attunement to the ebb and flow of nationalistic passions, it was assumed Bernhard would eventually find some niche of his own that would enable him to contribute to the Montclaire fortune. Yet, in spite of the many opportunities Gerard found for his son, Bernhard floundered.

Donning his doe brown tweed knee-length frock coat, Maxwell again regarded his visage. His heart quickened and he felt a flash of heat at the recognition of the dissonance between his features and those of his father. Bernhard Montclaire, genealogical aberration, omen of familial misfortune and ruin, had possessed a physicality entirely inconsistent with the Montclaire tradition. He had been a lean, almost gaunt man with thin, featherweight pale brown hair, a nervous temperament, and a delicate stomach. Maxwell’s mind conjured up the image of his father’s small, bluish hands being wrung. Those effete, overrefined hands contorting in discomfort and anxiety symbolized to Maxwell all his father had lacked. Bernhard had inherited none of the great patriarch’s élan vital; he was a disappointment in both appearance and intellect. And when, little more than three years after the triumph of Sevastopol Gerard Montclaire died in a fit of convulsions, young Maxwell beheld in his grandfather’s horrified expression what he now interpreted as the ghastly specter of the family’s future. The loss of grandfather Gerard heralded the ruin of the Montclaires; Bernhard’s desperate efforts to assume his father’s place resulted in the fast and steep decline of the family’s economic and social stock. Maxwell set out on his own as soon as he was able, though the incongruous circumstances of the intervening years significantly affected his psyche.

Maxwell turned back once more to ensure that the young woman slept on and, positioning his felt derby hat in place, moved carefully for the door. It eased open without a sound, leading him to wonder if its hinges were kept well-oiled for the express purpose of enabling silent departures such as his. He pulled his hat down lower on his forehead and made his way down the darkened hall. He averted the eyes of the few women he passed and offered only the briefest of glances to the men. Stepping out onto the street he confronted a host of odors that had yet to reach their peak in the morning air—the sticky ash of burned coal, vegetables rotting in the gutter, dried horse urine mixed with the cypress planks that lined the road, and the fried, salted catfish that constituted the breakfast of so many of the Acadians of the district. The glare of the rising sun struck his eyes sharply as looked up at the skyline of the city of Lafayette. Although it was late June the early hour and a cool breeze moving west off the Vermilion River meant that Maxwell would arrive at his destination without becoming too damp and disheveled. This was good, as appearances mattered a great deal where he was going.

He moved at a leisurely pace, allowing his hands to slip around the front of his coat and into the pockets of his green twill trousers. With slackened arms and relaxed shoulders, Maxwell studied the world around him as he made his way through it. The buildings that lined Pinhook Road consisted primarily of drab single or double-story tenement houses constructed of a combination of cypress, ash, and dogwood. There was little oak to be found in this part of the city. Flapping lines of laundry hung in patches from most of the porches, the dull color of the garments suggesting a grime that belied washing. What few windows there were appeared smoky with dirt. Most of the district’s inhabitants had either already set out for the morning to fish or were just beginning to stir; Maxwell only had to endure one or two harsh stares for his meticulous dress before he turned toward Johnston Street and left the Acadian district behind.

He knew it was perhaps unwise to move through the Cajun French areas of the city adorned as he was in the style of a gentleman, but the recreation was a release from the strictures his ambition imposed upon him. The clothing had taken much time and effort to acquire, but the sort of business he needed to conduct to rise in the world and create a legacy for himself demanded a wardrobe that was every bit as serious as he was. As Maxwell drew nearer to Johnston Street the scenery and atmosphere of the city began to shift. The air grew clearer and fresher. The ground was less marshy, the road tidier. The buildings became larger and taller and although cypress remained the dominant wood, splashes of oak and maple could be seen here and there. The homes were constructed in a consistent manner; many were lacquered with bright white paint. True architecture began to emerge in the form of ordered, decorative facades, rounded porches supported by thick columns, and rounded windows with shining panes of clear glass. Turning onto Johnston Street, even more impressive buildings of brick and stone began to appear. Maxwell’s destination could be seen just two blocks away: a stout rectangular hotel in the colonial style, rising up several stories from the ground. The sight elicited a feeling of relief in Maxwell that swelled the nearer he drew, but it was not until he entered the lobby that his relief gave way to an ease he had only known in childhood.

As he drew the smell of leather, cigar smoke, fresh-cut flowers, and perfume deep into his lungs, Maxwell’s past came up to meet him. In the midst of the hotel’s polished floors, stone columns, bright lights, elegant guests, and luxurious furnishings, he was again a Montclaire. Like his grandfather he was serious, dignified, and dedicated, his mind completely focused on achieving the task at hand. He experienced no anxiety as he glided across the marbled floor of the lobby’s standing area and onto the plush carpet that led to an arrangement of well-upholstered sofas and chairs. He opened his frock coat and seated himself in a rosewood armchair with lightly striped silk padding. Next to him was a lustrous pecan side table with scrolled edges and clawed feet. It was here that he would meet his client and complete the next link in a chain of transactions that would lead him toward redemption. Maxwell possessed the unadulterated commercial and instinctual faculties of his grandfather, and he meant to use them to restore the Montclaires to greatness.

Taking the time to be involved

Hubble ultra deep field scanThe most esteemed Captain James Tiberius Kirk once said, “If something’s important, you make the time.” This quote stuck in my mind from the first time I heard it, and not simply because I belong to that cadre of academics who possess an affinity for most things Star Trek. No, high correlation between academia and trek-philia aside, I appreciate the sentiment that in spite of whatever else one has going on in one’s life, there are some things that one simply must make time for–either because they are just that important or because they are, in the long run, good for one.  This might also be understood as keeping an eye on the “bigger picture” and understanding that there are things in life that are larger and more significant than one’s own (selfish) needs and worries. In my experience it is often the larger, the more significant-than-thyself things that actually help me push through challenges and day-to-day problems. Knowing that I’m helping myself in the long run doesn’t hurt either. Taking the time to be involved can be difficult for the ever-busy graduate student, but it’s ultimately a game in which there are no losers. Being involved will not only help you stay sane; it’s also a very useful tool for gaining the sorts of skills and connections that improve your prospects on the job market.

There are several reasons I’m so pushy on this issue. Having spent most of my undergraduate career not being involved in any sort of service work–academic or otherwise–I speak from experience when I say that being involved pays off. As an undergraduate I paid my own way. My family did not possess the means to contribute to–let alone support–my college education, so I did it myself. I was fortunate enough to have access to the wonderful (pre-Bush level) federal Pell grants and I won a few scholarships here and there. But I also typically worked no less than two jobs simultaneously (at times it was three) while I attended school full-time and lived on my own. It used to drive me insane when I would overhear fellow classmates complain about the amount of homework they had to do, even as they admitted to not working, living at home, and sleeping in long hours every weekend. Fear of living in poverty the rest of my life served as one heck of a motivator, but so did my knowledge that I was extremely lucky to be receiving a college education at all and that my family was very proud of me for all of the work I was doing. Whenever I would get down about having to work 35, 40 or even 62 hours per week and still make time to write that paper or study for that exam, I would think about how great it would be to not have to live paycheck to paycheck and how I could–perhaps one day–even have the kind of job that would not only allow me to support myself but also help members of my family make ends meet. During those years, it was my involvement with family and appreciation of what a college education could mean for both me and them that helped me push through.

Much to my amazement I not only made it to graduate school, but was also financially able to attend thanks to a graduate assistantship with the Office of Academic Support and Intercultural Services (OASIS) at UNL’s Culture Center. My year at OASIS was crucial to my adjustment to my new status as a graduate student. Working with undergraduates who were also first-generation and from low-income backgrounds helped ease my culture shock by opening the door to an entire community of peers who faced many of the same issues I did. And, although I am an introvert at heart, I also forced myself to step up and join UNL’s History Graduate Students’ Association (HGSA). I quickly began to experience the many advantages of being involved in organizational service work while in grad school. Here are my top three reasons for promoting grad student involvement:

  1. It will pay off in the long run. This should appeal to both the humanistic and the selfish regions of your noodle. By being involved in a community of peers and volunteering your time to perform service work for the good of the whole organization you are simultaneously furthering your own interests. You are gaining experience balancing the various aspects of your life with the responsibilities of being a hard-working adult. You are collaborating, working, and communicating with others in ways that will help you forge the social connections and people skills that will serve you well throughout the rest of your life. You are demonstrating to your peers, mentors, and potential employers that you are not only capable but willing and ready to take the initiative, collaborate, and lead by example. This should make for at least a few good lines on your c.v., not to mention bragging rights about being all Spock-like by putting the good of the many above the good of the one or the few and what not.
  2. Wherever your career takes you, being involved will be key to your success. No one is going to hire you to sit in a corner all day grumbling to yourself about all the work you have to do. The jobs of the future are jobs in which the best individuals–and hence the best employees–are those who collaborate with others to the benefit of all. The sooner you start developing and practicing the kinds of skills and habits that you’ll need to obtain your dream job, the better. Like it or not, you will be competing with those of us who are involved and we’ll have all those extra lines on our vitae and pumped up reference letters to prove it. (Revisit point number one if you need more motivation.)
  3. It’s called part of being a decent human being. No moral judgment intended here but really–human society didn’t get where it is today by way of selfish individualism. You think those cave-babies made it to puberty on their own? No, they lived long enough to become your ancestors because their tribes (i.e. an aggregate of human critters working together) devised ways to shelter, protect, and provide for themselves as a unit. Surely, now and then a cave girl or boy needed time to themselves or held a few berries back as a special bedtime snack, but the point is that cooperation has done some serious good for humanity over the years. It wouldn’t hurt if we all took a turn.

What is it about productivity?

My blog has experienced a significant dry spell recently. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Or perhaps, if you happened upon my blog and considered following me, you decided not to when you noted this dry spell. My site stats bear this theory out, and the thought occurred to me many times during the dry spell. Each time I told myself I needed to just sit down that day and write out some of my ideas (which were plentiful, if half-formed). Then, inevitably, I would turn my attention to one of the many other items on my never-ending to-do list. (There are actually multiple to-do lists.) What is it makes some of us so consistently productive and others, well, not so consistently productive? I’ve turned my attention to this question increasingly over the last couple of months in an effort to increase my own productivity. After all, the dissertation is lurking and it isn’t going to research and write itself as I finish my coursework and prepare for comps. I’ve discovered that all of the things that interfere with productivity are connected to the patterns of daily life us humans build up over the course of our lives.

The occasional news article and blog post contain some useful pointers (see especially the blog Zen Habits), but one of the resources I’ve found most helpful in my effort to recognize and change my daily habits to the benefit of my personal productivity is Paul J. Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Although the book contains sections that are geared primarily toward aiding students of psychology, most of it is beneficial for anyone seeking to get more done–academic nerd or not. Silvia begins by telling readers they are lying to themselves when they offer excuses such as “I’ll just binge write to make up for a lack of regularity” or “I need to do a little more research before I begin” or even “I need to get a nice comfy office chair before I begin writing on a regular basis.” The number one method Silvia argues in favor of is devising a regular (i.e. daily) writing schedule and sticking to it, no matter what. I speak from personal experience when I say that this is a heck of a lot harder than it sounds. There always seems to be something that demands I subvert my writing schedule and give it immediate attention. But Silva utilizes a variety of psychological studies and findings to help readers along.

Among the most useful tips are (1st) Give in to the fact that you need to have a regular writing schedule in order to be consistently productive. As a recovering binge writer, I often find myself trying to weasel out of my writing schedule with the temptation to “make up for it” later by writing a lot all at once. Of course, not only is this no fun; it also doesn’t always happen, which naturally carves a big, fat hole in my productivity and writing goals. The same goes for sticking to a regular study schedule. Over time, I discovered I was edging away from (i.e. avoiding) my writing schedule by doing study work “first” such as grading quizzes or reading for seminar. Granted, I was still getting work done, but not my writing. This goes along with Silva’s (2nd) most useful tip in my eyes: track your productivity and daily habits.

So this part seemed really, really anal to me at first but I probably wouldn’t have owned up to the ways I was avoiding my writing schedule without it. Silvia recommends tracking your writing progress by creating a spreadsheet for your daily goals. I’ve applied this not just to my writing schedule but to other healthy habits I wish to develop too, such as doing yoga every morning, indulging in a calm breakfast reading the news before rushing off to campus, taking time for afternoon meditation, and so forth. You’re probably thinking this sort of personal monitoring via spreadsheet sounds silly too, but Silvia cites behavioral research studies that illustrate that “self observation alone can cause the desired behaviors” (Silvia, 39). Think of monitoring your personal productivity as a strategy comparable to that of developing a monthly budget. I’ve noticed that whenever I have not met a daily goal and have to enter an all-caps “NO” into my spreadsheet, I work extra hard the next day to be sure I don’t repeat the undesirable behavior. And I remind myself that it isn’t about the spreadsheet: the daily habits I have listed are personal goals that, if achieved, I know will improve areas of my life.

Silvia goes on, in other chapters, to offer other tips for motivation and even some suggestions on improving your writing style. But there is one thing he doesn’t discuss that I would like to see addressed: the ways many academics keep their methods for personal productivity to themselves–like some closely-guarded secret that, if divulged, would somehow bring the world down on their heads. Maybe this is because we all assume people should, by the time they reach graduate school or enter a career, already know how to be the most productive they can be. I suppose this could be true for some people, but I don’t think it’s true for most and there’s almost always room for improvement. I think the true reason many academics–and graduate students in particular–don’t or won’t discuss their productivity tactics is because they fear it will lead to more competition. But I’d rather compete for funding and jobs with the kind of people who openly try to help me be the best I can be than with those who are only looking out for themselves. So I’ve shared some of what I’ve found useful here, and I’ll also be promoting an upcoming workshop for UNL history graduate students on the topic of “Maintaining Sanity as a Graduate Student: Organization, Study Habits, and Stress Relief.” And, as always, I welcome your comments, dear reader, on how we can all be more productive. See you next week.