Writing on a Page: Haibun

This is a Haibun for dVerse. Kim asked us to write about handwriting.

 

In the time before laptops, I sit in archives making notes in pencil on index cards—sometimes printing neatly, sometimes writing in a scrawl, which I will later regret when I can’t read an important word or date. In the old Philadelphia City Archives, I unwrap the brown paper from books tossed haphazardly on the table in front of me. In other archives, documents are treated with more care, even if we do occasionally pass some of the more ribald ones around. I read the flowing copperplate of professional clerks, as well as less legible handwriting. I learn to decipher superscripts and abbreviations no longer used. I read the words, ponder—ideas flow, and I write.

 

geese rise heading north

chaos becomes organized

writing on a page

 

 

My published work on history, gender, and sexuality can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

True Confessions, Library Version

A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.

–Neil Gaiman

My brain seems to be fixated on writing about books and the pleasure of reading, so this post might be seen as Part II of last Wednesday’s post, or Part Whatever in the story of my life. It’s here, if you’re interested.

On Friday I went to my local public library to return my books and check out new ones. I can spend hours browsing the stacks at a library. I HAVE spent hours. I like to browse. Sometimes I find a book I’ve wanted to read or the latest book by an author whose previous works I’ve read and enjoyed. Sometimes I find a new treasure. So many books! How to choose?

I feel such anticipation in looking for new books to read. I suppose it is similar to how some people feel about shopping for clothing. Or window shopping, which I really don’t get. Shopping for clothing or shoes is fun on occasion, especially if I find something that I like (that also fits), or if I’m spending time with my daughters–but then it’s not really about the clothes, is it? It’s about the companionship.

Anyway on Friday, I realized how excited I was about looking for books to read. I mean I never thought about it before–that I get excited about this. But I suspect that I’m not the only one, right? True confessions time. So I’m a nerd, and maybe I need a more exciting life, but at least I’ll have something interesting to discuss over dinner. Or I will once I get my head out of a book.

I always pick out an armful of books because I can’t decide what I want to read right then, and what I might want to read once I actually get home and have a chance to read. I like to have choices. Choices are good, right? I think that’s why it’s more fun–for me–to roam and browse in a public library than in a bookstore where I have to choose only one or two books. Too much pressure—what if I choose the wrong one? (Research libraries and archives are different, obviously, but finding a hidden treasure in an archive is also wonderful.)

Sometimes I choose a variety of novels—hmm, do I want to read a literary novel or something more popular? OK. I’ll get both. How about this historical novel? And a mystery, too? Yes, please. Or maybe that new cookbook. . .

This was my selection on Friday.

What to read?

What to read?

There were several more books I wanted to borrow but I restrained myself. It was difficult though. Thank goodness for renewals–and libraries with lots of books.

I read one novel at a time. Yes, I practice serial monogamy with my novels. Occasionally, I’ll casually date a book, but then after a few chapters we part and go our separate ways. Maybe I’ll call again sometime in the future. On further reflection we might actually have quite a bit in common. Maybe we each had our own issues to work out on that first date. It’s not you; it’s me.

I also go back and re-read books. They’re like old friends, comfortable and familiar, but still capable of surprising you.

There are books that I read quickly. It’s all fast and furious and ends with an explosive climax. Other books I read slowly, caught in the mood, lingering over passages, tasting the sweetness of a phrase, and embracing the fictional world I’ve entered until the very end. Part of my mind says, “Oh, Hurry! Faster! Read faster.” But another part of my brain says, “No, slow down. Oh YES! That phrase there.” But then the anticipation rises, and I have to go faster, faster . . .until I read those final words—and it’s over. Breathe. Back to reality.

Whew. Is it suddenly warm in here?

I better go now. I have books to read, and new worlds to explore, at least in my mind.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”

–William Styron

Looking Back at Looking Back

A few days ago while working on a new book, I needed some information on eighteenth-century men and women who left their spouses and turned to my first book Breaking the Bonds. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really read through it. It was a strange feeling to look back at prose I wrote over twenty years ago, but I was pleased to find I still thought it was good. Sigh of relief, right?

As I read about the unhappy lives of people who died long ago, I thought back about my own life.  I was reading history, but I was thinking about my own history—who I was, how I’ve changed, and how the process of research and writing has changed. Breaking the Bonds started as my doctoral dissertation, and because of that, it is the book I spent the most time researching and writing. I wrote each chapter multiple times and presented each one to professors, other grad students, and seminar groups. I presented versions of some chapters to various professional associations.

When I began the research for this book, few documents or collections were digitized. I didn’t do any of the research online or take notes on my computer. (I had one of the first Apple computer models then—a desk top, of course.) I went to archives with pencils (no pens allowed), index cards, and legal pads.

I was the first historian to really use and write about some of the documents and collections I unearthed during my research, although since that time, other, more celebrated, historians have gone on to discuss them. I was fortunate to be at the right place and the right time as archivists were processing some collections, and several graciously shared papers with me or allowed me to go through them before they were indexed. Those who have never visited archives might not realize how papers can become “buried” in stacks of other papers or within dusty volumes. Although I love the ease of finding and searching through online documents—without having to actually get dressed or worry about driving—there is something special about seeing and holding the actual letter someone in the past wrote to a friend, relative, or official. And something exhilarating about discovering a document that proves a point you want to make or leads you down a new path.

 I was a different person when I did the research for Breaking the Bonds. If I wrote the book now, it would be a different book. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Being a full-time graduate student is like nothing else. You are in an artificial world where your job is to read, write, and research, and then talk about it. All the time. Not joking. All the time.  It was a fun, exciting, and scary world to me. At the beginning of my grad school days, I was a twenty-something, but I was naïve and looked younger than I was. I always got carded if I went to a bar. Nearly every Friday night, my math teacher husband and I got together with other young married couples–who were not historians or grad students. We ate dollar hoagies (can you imagine?), or occasionally splurged on pizza or Chinese food. They would ask me what interesting stories I had come across in my research. I’d regale them with the pathos and sexual exploits of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Pennsylvanians, such as the woman who warmed one of her stockings and then dangled it in front of her lover before he could “get it up.” (Interested? It’s in the book!)

I was probably attempting to look professional.

I was probably attempting to look professional.

By the time I finished the dissertation, I had a baby daughter. Right before the book went to press, I gave birth to our second daughter (finishing the index just in time). Now both the babies are grown, and I’ve written and edited many books. I’m a different person. I’m probably still naïve, but I no longer get carded.

As I re-read Breaking the Bonds, I thought about how the world has changed since the eighteenth-century. And how I have changed since I wrote the book. At the same time, much in the world remains the same—people fall in love and lust, have children, enjoy eating and drinking with friends, gossip, and do cruel and horrible things to one another.

 Today I will reenact my grad school days. I told my husband that when I was in grad school I used to read a book in a day and write a review essay about it all the time. The book review I agreed to write for a major journal isn’t due until Wednesday. No problem. I guess I should get started though. Any second now. Wish me luck.

 Thanks for reading!

Merril

 

 

Words

“[Words] do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, and mating together.”
Virginia Woolf

Sometimes words march through my mind like soldier ants on a mission, orderly and controlled. At other times, they swirl violently in the currents and high winds of emotion. Occasionally, they drift like clouds, beautiful and beyond reach.

I’ve spent countless hours in archives reading the words of people long dead. I’ve held the centuries-old parchment that a mother touched long ago, placing quill on paper to share the grief she felt over the death of her child. Her words conveyed anguish still so palpable that my eyes filled with tears as I read. I’ve read court records–the dry, official language that nevertheless reveals details of spousal abuse and sexual transgressions. From both the heartfelt words of love and grief and the cold words of law and bureaucracy, we uncover the buried lives of others and unearth truths about the past.

We use words to express love: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” We use words to create images: “The fog comes on little cat feet.” We use words to proclaim liberty and freedom: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “We the people.”
But sometimes words are too much. “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” Eliza Doolittle sings in My Fair Lady. “Show me!’ she demands of her would-be suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill

There are times when we want don’t want words, we want action, whether it is fighting, loving, or marching. We want someone to do something. “Don’t just stand there. Help them! Help me!” We need a hug, a kiss, a caress, or a human touch.
Sometimes words are inadequate. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.” We cannot make a broken heart whole again. I cannot heal your heart, as much as I want to. But we—but I– put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard because that’s all we can do.