Why I Write: Beyond Writer’s Block and Toward Meaningful Storytelling

Over the course of a writing retreat this past November I was listening to a MasterClass with the author Amy Tan. While sections of the course were directed to writers that were just getting started, I paid close attention to the lesson focused on writer’s block. 

While 2021 was so much better than 2020—and 2022 even better so far—I still found myself choosing to spend what spare time I had sitting on the couch watching television instead. I know we are not supposed to be hard on ourselves, to be thinking about missed opportunities from this ongoing pandemic— after all, we can’t all be Brandon Sanderson—but I can’t help but consider how much of my real blocks are about more than just the state of the world. 

During this lesson Tan talks about writing rituals, about methods to block out distractions, and then she looks straight at the camera and says: “Ask yourself: Why did you decide to become a writer in the first place?” 

Her purpose, of course, was to encourage us to move past the imposter syndrome that leads into a cycle of NOT writing. To remind you about what the initial impetus was for first putting pen to paper. 

A quotation propped against one of the bookshelves at my writer’s retreat.
Continue reading “Why I Write: Beyond Writer’s Block and Toward Meaningful Storytelling”

2022. Hello Forty.

Over the last ten years I have shared—on or around January 1st—a vision for my future. These have never been ordinary resolutions. Instead I wrote mantras, hopes, and wishes for what I want my life to stand for, what I want it to mean. More often than not I talked about taking risks and leaps, harnessing optimism, searching for kindness, and in some of our tougher years, encouraged myself to dig deep for a well of defiance.

Earlier this week, as I continued to think about how to approach this piece, I saw a suggestion (by an old high school friend) to not look to resolutions, but rather to make a list of things you were proud of in 2021. So here’s my list:

Glittering poles with flowers and greeneries and shoes as witnesses to lives lost.
“Come, Take a Moment” is an installation by Devon Shimoyama meant to encourage visitors to the Arts and Industries Building’s exhibition called The FUTURES to pause and reflect on the “tumult and tragedy brought on by racial violence and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

We all know it wasn’t an easy year, but unlike 2020 it had moments of brightness made possible by the COVID-19 vaccine. I know taking a vaccine is an odd thing to list as an accomplishment, but when belief in our ability as humans to take care of each other feels like a challenge, taking the three shots in 2021 felt like something I could do not only for myself, but for others. More selfishly, taking the vaccine allowed me to hug family, and friends, and to fly across the country to meet my new nephew just days after he was born.

Continue reading “2022. Hello Forty.”

Fifteen.

Five years ago I wrote about a fairly naïve, 23 year old who started her first post-grad school job thankful to be working professionally as a historian. I was grateful for colleagues, mentors, and an organization that enabled me to grow with time.

On August 14, I am marking not only 15 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but also 15 years as a public historian. In the intervening years, a lot has changed—teams, expectations, job roles, and the organization itself—and I find myself reflecting on how those changes have changed me.

When your parents move out of their house of 30+ years you find the weirdest things at the perfect time. I started my new job seven days before my birthday. What a lovely welcome.

Consider the words at the start of this piece: Thankful. Grateful. Two words that I have been hearing a lot about, at a time when the intersecting and overlapping nature of work has shifted due to a virus that fundamentally altered how we see our lives. For many, this past year revealed that organizations and companies do not owe their employees anything. Whatever loyalty and commitment we have, it may not be reciprocated—an attitude I commiserate with—particularly in light of the series of layoffs within the museum and history field due to the pandemic.

Five years ago, I wrote about how important it was for me to be working in a field that I love—that if most of my life was spent at an office, I would rather work with passion, than with indifference.

Continue reading “Fifteen.”

Fly Me to the Moon: Lessons from the Crowd

When I started this piece many months ago I intended to write about the ways in which technology and multi-disciplinary storytelling has changed the way we engage with our senses. The plan was to look at two, equally compelling, modes of storytelling about a single event in history, and tease apart the ways in which each were constructed to build meaning and connection. 

The first of the two experiences was Earthrise, a musical, presented at the Kennedy Center from July 18-August 4, 2019. The second was the National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11: Go For the Moon, July 19-21, 2019, which used projection mapping to create a one of a kind experience on the National Mall

In both cases, the audience was central to the experience. The crowds, the people we stood and sat next to, built tension and enhanced the production in unexpected ways. 

But we are now in mid-November, almost a year and half past, and the world is a very different place. 

Continue reading “Fly Me to the Moon: Lessons from the Crowd”

Beyond the Written Word: Historical Storytelling in an Interdisciplinary World

Update 8/2/2017: Do you consider yourself a storyteller (a dancer, a musician, an artist, a writer)? Make sure to fill out my survey!

Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here. —Sue Monk Kidd in the Secret Life of Bees

As a public historian and preservationist, I have always seen our work as inherently interdisciplinary, recognizing that in the increasingly digital world we live in, the need to use audio, video, and text to communicate our mission has become paramount.

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Now, nearly, eleven years into my career at the National Trust for Historic Preservation I plan on jumping in feet first into the world of storytelling and engage with digital (and in person) storytellers across a variety of disciplines and fields. In doing so I hope to gain a sense of best practices and tools that can help connect the public to the histories of all Americans.

This project is part of a two month sabbatical from the National Trust that will take place this coming August and September (see timeline below). The hope is to not just look at storytelling in the history field – but also the wider field of humanities and beyond.  At the end I hope to have gained a sense of how to construct a story that is richer, broader, and meaningful – without creating a cacophony that overwhelms the senses. Continue reading “Beyond the Written Word: Historical Storytelling in an Interdisciplinary World”

75 Years Later: Allegiance and Executive Order 9066

Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. – Excerpt from Executive Order 9066. Signed February 19, 1942 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When I was in graduate school I was assigned Only What We Could Carry for a course on visual and material culture. This text used objects, poetry, photography, and art to reveal the wide ranging experiences of Japanese Americans (and permanent residents) that were forced, seventy-five years ago, from their homes into internment camps.

Members of the Mochida FAmily awaiting evacuation. | National Archives
Members of the Mochida Family awaiting evacuation. | Dorothea Lange via/ National Archives
One of the first artifacts photographed is an evacuation tag. At first glance looks like a label you would place on an inanimate object with basic reference information. For the evacuees forced to leave their homes, this tag removed identities paring individuals down to a name, family number, and a time and a place to report.
Continue reading “75 Years Later: Allegiance and Executive Order 9066”

Summer in October: Photos from Colorado

Inside Louis Dupuy's kitchen. A view down at the (not original) stove.
Inside Louis Dupuy’s kitchen. A view down at the (not original) stove.

Who says you can’t write about summer vacations in October? At the end of July I traveled to Colorado Springs for an epic family reunion. Naturally I couldn’t make a trip to a different state and not play tourist for a little while. I wrote about one part of my trip, a visit to Hotel de Paris in Georgetown for Saving Places.  The piece, which I had a lot of fun writing, is about the hotel’s proprietor, Louis Dupuy, a man who was a fugitive, journalist, and an infamous chef.

In addition to Georgetown I also spent a few hours in Denver, checking out the state capitol, the Emerson School (home of the National Trust Denver Field Office), and the Molly Brown House. The latter site is pretty great, mostly because it does what most historic houses do, but flips the perspective, telling us about Molly Brown’s legacy rather than just the male inhabitants. Continue reading “Summer in October: Photos from Colorado”

Never shall I forget that night: On Elie Wiesel

In the foreword of the new translation of his book Night Elie Wiesel wrote:

“In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer—or my life, period—would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”

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Like most American teenagers I encountered the words of Elie Wiesel in an English class. The stark white cover, Wiesel’s name in blue lettering, a shadowed image of barbed wire obscuring a singular figure: we were two years from my first visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (of which Wiesel was the founding chairman) and while I knew about the horror in abstraction, this was the first witness testimony I had ever read. Continue reading “Never shall I forget that night: On Elie Wiesel”

Hamilton & Public History: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Second in a series of three posts about the musical Hamilton. Read the first here.

In starting an essay on Hamilton it might be best to state my bias upfront. A work of genius, Hamilton soars for a variety of reasons including the hip hop allusions, the allegory to modern life, and the purposeful diverse casting, all of which have already been covered extensively elsewhere. But while I yet to have the privilege of seeing it in person there is one very large reason why I think the musical is fantastic:

Hamilton is an almost perfect example of public history.*

Public history is about meaning. It’s not always 100% accurate and is rooted in how various publics perceive their own past. Hamilton the musical plays with that idea while engaging with the very real themes of legacy and memory.

But it’s about more than that. A few weeks ago, at the PastForward conference Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative spoke eloquently about the need to open up the narrative of our history to achieve social justice, he states “I believe that the opposite of poverty is not wealth….I believe that the opposite of poverty is justice. And we do an injustice when we tell stories about our space, our history, our identity that are incomplete.”

While Hamilton isn’t exactly an active agent in social justice, it does, in just over two hours, show how the narrative of a Founding Father is also the African-American story, the immigrant story, the story of women, and a story of the impoverished. As with most artistic interpretations there is an element of anachronism, as this American Historical Association piece mentions, but the musical’s ability to engage the public on the importance of history in all its forms is worth its weight in gold.

For me it all comes down to resonance and relevance.

The Two R’s

Resonance is an emotional reaction. In history it is the ability to relate to the past in a way that feeds your identity. In my case it was clear almost immediately that the lyrics and narrative of Hamilton would feed my history-loving, poetry-inspired soul and really hit home in making some abstract subjects real.

This is perhaps best illustrated through “Satisfied“, sung by Angelica Schuyler at her sister’s wedding to Alexander Hamilton.

I’m a girl in a world in which
My only job is to marry rich
My father has no sons so I’m the one
Who has to social climb for one
So I’m the oldest and the wittiest and the gossip in
New York City is insidious
And Alexander is penniless
Ha! That doesn’t mean I want him any less.

In one song we learn more about the social standing of women in 18th century America in a way that is ridiculously catchy and human. We hear Angelica’s conflicting feelingsbetween what she wants and what society expects–and really feel her plight. While intellectually I saw this as a vehicle for showing the way class and gender determined pathways in early America, emotionally I felt Angelica’s conflict.

Then there is relevance. A lot of the issues we grapple with as a country are rooted in a very real awareness that while “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” huge segments of the country were left behind. (Angelica: And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!). And so one of the biggest reasons this show is a great example of public history is its ability to be relevant to the here and now.

But sometimes you can’t think about resonance and relevance as separate entities. I found that I was emotionally drawn to songs that subtly link to the practice of history. Specifically how Miranda is able to explain why we know some things and not others i.e. “no one else was in the room where it happened,” “I’m taking myself out of the narrative.” As a result Hamilton feels not only historically accurate (within reason), but also authentic. During the Smithsonian interview, Miranda mentioned that for the purposes of the art, some level of suspension of belief had to happen. I believe that in sacrificing some accuracy for the spirit of the past, Hamilton accomplishes something that is uniquely powerful.

As a public historian I walk around the world knowing that our present is influenced by what came before. We grow and change based on how we take those experiences in our own lives. The strength of Hamilton is the way it is able to take a very traditional narrative of the past and create tethers to our current existence. I see this in these two oft-repeated phrases “look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now” coupled with the reminder “Look at where you are. Look at where you started. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.” Both are reminder to us, the audience, that to create a better future we need to pause and recognize how far we’ve come. That it is worth taking a breath as we continue to fight the social ills of our own age.

Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story

During the Q&A last at the Smithsonian, an audience member asked Lin Manuel Miranda what he wanted his legacy to be. He said (paraphrasing) that Hamilton touches upon the notion that there is not a lot of time in this world (Why do you write like you’re running out of time, running out of time.) and so “I want to leave behind as much as possible. I know that’s selfish, but there is so much in my brain that when I go I want it all out, I want to always throw rocks in the pond.”

And that is the final reason why Hamilton an almost perfect piece of public history. We only have one life to live and it’s fitting that it is Eliza’s (Hamilton’s wife) words at the end of the show are what left me energized and in tears all at the same time. In the final song she sings of her own legacy, telling not only Hamilton’s story, but also her own, adding another layer to an already rich story. Perhaps, more importantly the show’s ultimate message is that it’s not about finding someone to tell your story, but rather to “put yourself back in the narrative” and tell it yourself. After all, the greatest impact of history can have on the public is to inspire — and Hamilton the musical does that in spades.

*Why is this not perfect? It comes down to accessibility. Right now, while grants have been given to allow school children to see it, the show is cost prohibitive for most people (unless you win the ticket lottery). But I suspect this will change with time — and hopefully a feature film?

Ten Ham Commandments

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While in the process of trying to pull together a reflective piece on Hamilton as public history, my friend Sarah H. had a dream where she saw me rewriting the lyrics to “Ten Duel Commandments.”

Challenge accepted.

What follows is the first of three completely different posts on the musical. You should be aware I wrote “Ten Ham Commandments” on a five-hour bus ride between DC and Newark, and in doing so I now have a reinforced appreciation for Lin Manuel Miranda’s skills. Seven was ridiculously hard to re-write (internal rhymes!), and refers to a response Miranda gave during his recent interview at the National Museum of American History about what he wanted his own legacy to be. You can listen and read the original lyrics here – with annotations. Thanks to Sarah H. for helping me edit. In the end this parody is really about how much Hamilton connects with a more inclusive view of the past. Continue reading “Ten Ham Commandments”