Reframing (by William Cowell)


In every history paper or project I’ve had a hand in -- or at least every good one -- there’s always been a point somewhere in the middle where I’ve been tempted to scrap all of what I’ve written and start over. Of all the writings that I’ve been satisfied with at the end, not a single one escaped the sort of existential crisis that lingers somewhere between start and finish; this project is hardly any different. It’s a frustration that doesn’t have to do with competence (though I’m surely lacking in that department), thoroughness, or motivation; more than anything, it’s about approach.


I always try to set up an outline for a project -- mostly because I’ve charged headfirst into too many papers without one and seen the messy results -- but somewhere around the midpoint, I usually find myself unhappy with the direction. Sometimes that has to do with the structure; more often, though, it’s about framing. Historical interpretations are guided by the sources you find and the questions you set out to answer -- this is nothing new. At some point in the process, though, the questions you started with, the outline you made, and the narrative you envisioned won’t fit any longer. Either the sources have spoken for themselves or you’ve come up with an entirely new way of conceiving of your project, and neither of those is bad. Being dissatisfied with your initial direction is definitely frustrating, but acting on it is responsible. Rather than trying to jam sources into pre-formed narratives and outlines, adjusting for new perspectives and configurations ensures a more complete and honest history.


Vis a vis this current project (I know, I know -- finally), it’s been a struggle to figure out how to say anything new about the military experiences of World War I. So much has been written of the individual horrors of the war that a project like this can start to feel like piling on. Enough letters and diaries have been published, enough sepia photographs displayed, enough historical reconstruction done that this sort of work can get lost in the shuffle, undistinguished from the anguished annals of recollected misery perpetually reconstituted and repackaged anew. I don’t want this project to offer up the verbatim experiences of soldiers and leave it at that. I want to change that approach into something more -- I don’t know, meaningful? -- but that’s the problem. Soldiers’ experiences have long been the preferred lens for WWI history; how do you write something new about that?