Writers have good days and bad days. Bad days can happen for all kinds of reasons: being tired or mentally stuck, having someone crap up your day so you can’t really focus, facing a major laptop meltdown, being out of the right coffee beans, or brewing them wrong, or being unable to find the favored mug.
But then there are bad days of bad writing because even if it’s a productive day and the words are going down in some sort of logical order, maybe even with some art about them, the content is just lousy and there’s no getting around that. It’s the kind of day that even good writing makes you feel bad.
I have been facing days like that recently, as I have made it to the part of my project that unfolds during the Civil War. It’s hard for a number of reasons. #1: there’s very little architecture happening because of the basic rule that war is the enemy of architecture–buildings don’t get built during wars. Lack of buildings presents a certain challenge to an architectural historian, unless she is really into her people, which leads me to #2: it’s horrible to live during wartime. Even for my architect, who did not go into battle, but whose sons did, it was awful, and complicated, and hard, for him to watch his country get torn apart and, on a very personal level, deal with having family in both armies. I don’t know how other historians face writing about this kind of stuff all the time. Maybe at the distance of writing abstractly about battles and massive troop movements it’s not so crushing as seeing the war through the eyes of one person. But for me, writing about the war from this one anxious person’s point of view is really, really draining.
Because my subject was a very devout member of his church I also need to dig into the religious history of the period, and that makes the whole matter even harder. I don’t like thinking about people wrapping up the war effort in religious language that interpreted the horrible conflict between Americans as a necessary part of cleansing the country for greater spiritual purpose. You read these diaries and letters and then go back to, say, the lyrics of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it’s really kind of devastating. It’s all the harder to swallow when just a few nights ago the PBS show Frontline ran a program on Iraq, going back at least to the 2003 invasion. You don’t have to listen to many of those news clips before you start hearing similar language. And that makes it all the sadder.
So this was a bad day, but at least it ended with the draft of the chapter done. That leaves just 5 of the projected 30 to go, and now that the war is over, it’s all downhill from here: just twenty more years, one more bankruptcy, and the death of two more sons before I can let my architect get on to his final rest.
Image: “The War for the Union, 1862–A Bayonet Charge”
(Winslow Homer, 1862), from the Met