How did you become a writer?
I’m a historian – so writing is a fundamental part of my trade. But writing has been natural to me since I was a child, in part, I think, because I’ve been a voracious reader since I could read. When I first went to college, I thought I would enter into journalism because I aspired to be a writer, but as I took history courses, I realized I could combine my interest in the past with my penchant for writing. I liked the idea of story-telling – and particularly if I could tell stories from an unconsidered or overlooked angle.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was fortunate to have remarkable teachers who shared their views with me at each stage of my educational development. In my New Jersey high school, I had an excellent English teacher, Judy LaVigne, in 10th and 12th grades who assigned writing that aimed to develop both understanding of content as well as test students’ ability as writers. She would sometimes assign just individual paragraphs but with the stipulation that each sentence had to begin in a different way. Or I remember very clearly an assignment where sentences could be no more than seven words each. That kind of judiciousness is something my best writing guides continued emphasize as I moved forward. As an undergraduate at American University, one of my Communications professors, Lenny Steinhorn, insisted that each sentence should prove its usefulness, that every sentence – really, every word – should move your argument forward. He advised reading essays aloud to consider what was absolutely necessary and what could be removed, and as a way of ensuring that one idea led fluidly to another. And then when I was a graduate student at Indiana University, my advisor, Michael McGerr, all but rejected the concept of compound sentences. Each sentence should be allowed its own idea. All of this has led to me a very clear mantra about writing: shorter sentences = clearer sentences. And this is something I repeat nonstop to my students as I attempt to help them improve their writing. My other mantra: you become a better writer by writing more, so keep writing.
When it comes to professional writers who’ve inspired me: Stephen King (On Writing), Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird), and Ann Patchett (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage) are some of my favorite writers for talking about writing. All of them are great for emphasizing the kind of *work* writing requires, the discipline of sitting down and grinding out but also the understanding of when to walk away and return to the page if you find yourself stuck.
Historians whose writing I love are Jill Lepore (Book of Ages) and Danielle McGuire (At the Dark End of the Street). They are exceptional historians AND exceptional writers. Their prose is as elegant as their construction of argument is masterful. They prove that good history and good writing are not mutually exclusive – and also show what good writing can do to make academic texts extremely readable.
When and where do you write?
Whenever I can, I write in the morning. When I first wake up, I’m freshest, so I like to get right to work. Sometimes that’s evaluating evidence. Sometimes it’s editing. As often as possible, though, I attempt to do my fresh, first-draft writing early in the day. And then as the day continues, I’ll do more reading and note-taking, more consideration of how what I’ve just written fits with what I’ve already done. I have a home office that I use, or I’ll go to the library of my home institution, Muskingum University. It’s big and beautiful and (during the summer) quiet and flooded with sunlight.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a book about media representations of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis over the course of her public life. As the most famous woman in the world for consecutive decades, Onassis was a constant point of emphasis across publications and mediums. As such, she served as a kind of barometer for views about American womanhood at a time when conceptions of womanhood were undergoing fundamental shifts.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really. And that may well be linked to the kind of writing I do. If I feel stymied in my building of argument, it’s probably more of an intellectual problem than a writing problem. I need to revisit my evidence or mine new sources or reconsider my argument. I think there are always ways to jumpstart your writing. For me, I might take a source I want to use eventually and write 250 words about why I think it’s important. Maybe I’ll use some part of that analysis later and maybe I won’t, but the act of writing is important for keeping me focused and moving forward with the project.
I just wrote an essay about Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” and I was so struck by her insistence that writing is not merely about sitting down and putting words on the page. As she balanced her domestic responsibilities with her professional commitments, she crafted stories and ruminated on plotlines and developed characters while grocery shopping or doing the dishes or vacuuming the carpet. The act of getting words on a page was only the physical element of an ongoing mental labor. Thinking about writing in that way can help, I think, from feeling defeated when the words aren’t coming at the pace you wish they would.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Start writing. And I don’t think this is specific to historians or even people writing non-fiction. There’s a temptation to wait until you “have enough” or “are ready.” More evidence, a better sense of argument, a clearer idea of the story you want to tell, etc. But I think the best way to see *what* evidence you need or *how* your argument or story is going to develop is by doing the writing. From there, you can strengthen and advance whatever the project is you’re working on.
What’s your advice to new writers?
The advice above is right on. Write. And then rewrite. I love having a first draft, largely because I find revising to be easier than the crafting of the original material. And I’m borrowing this, I think, from Stephen King, but READ. Seeing what good writers do, understanding how they communicate, considering their form, all of that is fundamental to developing a model and providing a starting point.
Karen Dunak is Associate Professor of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio where she teaches courses on a range of topics in Modern US History. She is author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America (New York University Press, 2013) and is a contributing author to Oxford University’s Press’s Of the People: A History of the United States. Her work has appeared in Gender & History, The Journal of American Culture, The Journal of American History, Salon, PublicBooks.org, and as part of the Popular Romance Project. Her current project examines mass media’s representations of and responses to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. You can follow her on Twitter @karendunak.