Writing That Matters

This is a rebellion.

This is a rejection of restrictive norms, a pushback against systems that no longer work and perhaps never did, a conscious and resolute decision to say thanks but no thanks and, with all due respect, screw that.

It’s 1789, and I’ve got my sabre in one hand, the Tricolour in the other, and I’m on my way to the Bastille.

But let me take a step back for a moment. Because, as any good historian knows, it’s important to give you context to understand how we got to this point.

That’s what I am. A historian. A scholar who studies the ideas, events, and actions of the past in the hopes of understanding what happened and, if we’re very lucky, explaining why they did.

What we do is too often misunderstood as simply memorizing dates and facts. They are but merely one tool in our arsenal — a necessary one, to be sure, but far from the most important. Does an actress become so by merely memorizing lines? Or is it the meaning they attach to those lines, the emotion and power they convey through their words and actions, that give them their identity? So it is with history. It is the way we seek to understand and explain the events of the past, rather than the events themselves, that make us what we are.

I’ve been at this a while, long before I really knew that history was what I was doing. As a kid I loved reading about everything from Egyptian mummies to sunken shipwrecks. Like many young history nerds barreled over by the freight train of testosterone that comes with puberty, I became interested in military history, reading up on ancient Roman legions and Medieval knight orders. In my final year of high school, I wrote an independent study on the American military from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812.

After flirting with the thought of becoming a theatre major, I fell back into history in college. I went back into early American history with vigor, researching the ideologies of the American Revolution and the people who espoused them. I published an academic article while working for the US Navy. In graduate school, I expanded my focus to the wider Atlantic World, researching the British Empire, slavery, and the broader connections that characterized the Age of Revolutions.

All that to say: I know how to “do” history. I know how the discipline operates. And I think that we’re doing it wrong.

What is history? Writ broadly, it is the study of the past. We do that part quite well. We research in archives, read up on primary and secondary sources, and find connections that help us learn what happened years ago. We have gotten better at reading against the grain of history, recreating lives of those whose voices have been silenced and disregarded in memory as in life.

The purpose of all that study is simple: we want to understand and explain the past. That is a useful endeavor, to be sure. Learning, even if only for learning’s sake, is never a waste. By studying the past we can better understand how the world works–how societies, governments, businesses, cultures, and peoples make sense of and conduct their lives.

Too often, though, we lose ourselves in that history. We debate endlessly what caused this or that decision, what factors led to this war or that election, what ideological movements influenced this reform or that societal shift. Those debates increase our understanding of the past, to be sure, so they are not useless by any means. But they matter only to those who also make their living in the past rather than the present. They matter only to people who see the world as it was, not those of us living in the world as it is. We fail to take the research that we’ve done and draw clear connections to the lives we lead today. All our work remains locked in the past.

I’ve been guilty of that. I can draw some broad connections from my dissertations to the current state of affairs, but doing so requires the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast. I can provide arguments as to how privateering relates to our understanding of modern-day free market, democratic capitalism, but I would require a whole second dissertation to demonstrate that relationship. I feel as though I’ve been looking at the wrong side of the equation, studying the past first then groping for a connection to the present. With this website, I’m flipping that script.

Everything I write on here will relate to the events, movements, and ideas shaping our world today. I am, of course, just one person; the things I find relevant may not be relevant to you individually, dear reader, and that’s alright — the world is a big place with many ideas to explore. My interests often fall under the umbrella of politics, so much of what I write will be in the same area. But there is also a great deal of meaning to be found in our world outside of the political sphere: in social movements, cultural moments, sporting events, and individual narratives. I hope to make this website a place for those stories as well.

Though I am rebelling against the discipline of academic history, I appreciate the things it has taught me. The process of history is based on careful, methodical research — not merely gathering all the facts, but understanding them and applying them in a responsible manner. Research begets arguments, which must consist of a logical analysis of the available sources and data. Though not every article on this website will be based in historical analysis, every single one will follow the methodology prescribed by the discipline of history: a logical, analytical argument buttressed by careful and responsible research.

The rebellion I have thus far discussed is one of substance, but the more important one is a rebellion of style. History is not only trapped in the past; it’s trapped in its mind. Writers of history write only with their brains. They construct arguments in staid and listless language that may appeal to the corpses they write about, but not to the vibrant souls who they erroneously claim to write for. Writing, good writing, must be written with emotion in order to be read with emotion. It must flow from the writer like a torrent of feeling, a cascade of anger and rage, spontaneity and joy, sorrow and despair. We are not solely rational creatures, driven only by the impulses of our brains. We are emotional; we are heartfelt; we are alive. It’s time our writing conveyed the full range of human emotion in addition to the full range of the human experience.

That is why I decided on the tagline “Writing That Matters” for this website. Trite and unoriginal though it may be, it most accurately describes the writing I want to produce. Writing that matters should cover topics that matter — the movements, ideas, and events that shape our present world. Often we can look to the past to find explanations for those factors. But writing that matters should also go beyond facts and figures and speak to the heart and soul of the reader. It must connect with them in a way that spreadsheets and footnotes cannot; it must invoke feeling as well as thought. Only then can writing serve to enlighten as well as educate.

That’s my rebellion. To have the audacity to live in the present instead of the past. To have the nerve to feel as well as think. And if anything I’ve written here has resonated with you, then take up your sabre and your Tricolour. Come join me. Let’s see where this rebellion goes.

Published by Scott Wagner

I'm a writer. But, well, that's pretty obviously, since I'm writing this right now. But writing requires more than that; it requires the ability to observe the world around you, to analyze it through a variety of media, and to explain those observations in a way that resonates powerfully with the reader. That's what I try to do. I write primarily about current events, politics, history, and sport across multiple platforms including scottwagnerwriter.com and standingroombaseball.com.

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