For most of us, history is a series of monumental events and larger-than-life figures. Jesus. Napoleon. Alexander the Great. Winston Churchill. Hitler. History is excitement, drama: the invention of the wheel, the bombing of Hiroshima. Our history books tell the tales of great men: presidents, politicians, philosophers, poets. Rarely do we hear the ordinary stories of ordinary women and men.
However, as Leo Tolstoy once said, history is more accurately described as “an infinitely large number of infinitely small actions”— in other words, the combined effect of the many small actions of commonplace people. In Write for Your Life, Anna Quindlen makes a passionate plea for us to write: grocery lists and bullet point notes, diaries and love letters, novels and poems. A populist of the page, Quindlen believes writing isn’t just for writers. All people should write: young Jewish girls hiding from Nazis, troubled teens from 1990s Long Beach, nurses and doctors.
But why bother? In the book’s final chapter, Quindlen suggests writing is vital because the act of putting pen to page preserves our stories in the historical record. Sadly in many classrooms across the country, the most compelling events of human history are reduced to a meaningless list of facts and figures. Rather than see their own potential to contribute a chapter to the story of the world, most students understand history as a series of trivial names and dates and tedious lectures. History— we believe— is an inaccessible textbook reserved for distant lands and boring, bygone figures. As Quindlen observes,
“It is a sad and undeniable fact that history comes to us drained of blood and embalmed, a penology of stiff set pieces starring great men, an array of nations and dates and documents. In classrooms, in seminars, in books, it is too often something to memorize and too seldom something to be a part of. The distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once wrote, ‘History is lived in the main by the unknown and forgotten. But historians perforce concentrate on the happy few who leave records, give speeches, write books, make fortunes, hold offices, win or lose battles and thrones.’
In the past those happy few wrote the story, turning history into an enormous, grand house, a little like the White House, chandeliers and columns and porticoes. But where is the furniture? We are the furniture. The history people need to understand where we have come from, what to decry and what to prize, is not a history of presidents and generals. It is the history of us, and one reason ordinary people must write is to leave their own records, to furnish the rooms of our country and our world.”
British philosopher Alain de Botton once said, telling a story is a process of simplification and selection. Think about it: when you tell a story, you don’t include every single detail. You emphasize certain things and eliminate others. You omit, you compress, you only leave what is most relevant to the plot. The narrator of the story determines what’s important vs. what’s not.
This is true of our larger historical stories as well. But who has the power to narrate the stories of our nation, our civilization, our world? Who can speak and who is silenced? Who has a voice and who is exiled to the island of voicelessness?
Tragically, throughout time, men have told their stories while silencing the dispossessed and marginalized. Men, specifically white men, have dictated which stories are significant and which are unworthy of our attention. “History” is now commonly understood as relating to the public realm of war, government and politics. But history isn’t just grand events or once-in-a-lifetime occurrences— it’s also the mundane moments. History is a courageous young girl writing in her diary just as much as it is Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz. The right to tell your own story (and therefore contribute to the larger story of history) belongs to every human. If we don’t tell our stories, Quindlen warns, our experiences will be wiped from the historical record and forever forgotten:
“There are too few such stories written down, handed down, made part of history alongside the songs of exploration, economics, and government. Relying on that kind of history provides a skewed view of the world because it is almost entirely the history of deeds done by white men, who wrote down what happened as they saw fit, picking and choosing and editing and deleting. And so the rest of us became invisible, at best bit players in the sweep of history.”
Just as Rebecca Solnit argued journalists have the responsibility to rewrite the world’s broken narratives, Quindlen asserts citizens have a duty to tell their stories. When we tell our stories, we reclaim our right to be seen, to be heard, to contribute a chapter to the chronicle of history. By committing our thoughts to paper, whether that be in a major newspaper or the private pages of a diary, we’re asserting we matter, our lives matter. As Quindlen writes,
“If, in good times and in bad times and ordinary times, people who may not think of themselves as writers begin to set their stories down, in their own voices, in whichever way they choose, it will make history, make it truer, fairer, richer. We need to hear from everyone, durable words, like the letters Sandy wrote to Harry as a war bride, the essays written by the nursing students at Yale, the recollections of those Kansas women making a home amid hardship. We need the words of people whose words were unremarked in histories of the past. If those unaccustomed to the act of everyday writing can find ways to recover the urge to sit down and produce thoughts, musings, letters for their children, their friends, the future, we will not only know what happened during their lifetimes, we will know how it felt. As Anne Frank showed the world, as the Freedom Writers learned themselves, history is our story. Those who write it, own it, today and always.”
Want more insight into why we should write? Visit Anna Quindlen on why we should write and writing as a means to write who we are and remember who we once were. Still tormented by the immortal question of why we should pen to page? Read Joan Didion’s canonical answer in her 1976 essay of the same name.