Zero to Cicero and Back Again

I always encourage people to fall down the rabbit hole.

If you find yourself with sudden inspiration to research something, you should do it. Whether it’s going to IMDB to look up the actor you think you recognize from a guest role on a tv show, or searching on Facebook for your grade school classmates, or looking for a book that’s been out of print for decades, sometimes the very act of searching will teach you something or send you on a path you weren’t expecting.

I’ve spent hours following random thoughts through Wikipedia, Spotify and, discovering publications or recordings I didn’t know existed, or finding out tidbits about former acquaintences that were surprising and sometimes shocking.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

This time around, I was watching tv when the name of a character reminded me of someone I used to know. Wondering what had happened to this person, I jumped on Google.

I was wholly unprepared for Google to lead me to a moviestar fandom blog, as there really was nothing more unexpected from this person than such a ‘frivolous’ blog that was easily and immediately tied back to them.

To explain further, I need to provide some backstory on myself and how I know this individual.

Many years ago I had ambitions of getting my Ph.D. in history. I already had a Master’s Degree from another school, but thought my academic quest would end there. When my former employer, UT Austin, allowed us to take academic classes for free, I took advantage of the opportunity. Within a couple of semesters I realized that I had not satiated my craving for historical research. After a couple more years of planning and effort, including an accelerated course in Latin that took us from zero to Cicero in a semester, I was back in grad school.

I took coursework beginning in 2000, and was accepted into the graduate program in 2004. For four years, working full-time at my job and as a part-time graduate student, I worked towards my goal. I read dozens upon dozens of books and articles on obscure topics that faculty said we needed to know, and jumped through many other hoops to meet arbitrary goals. I was pushed in directions I had no desire to follow and to work with faculty whose approach to history differed from my own, but I kept going, believing that in the end, the Ph.D. would open these magical golden doors to academia and allow me to pursue a teaching or research career that would be more fulfilling than the one I had, which was rapidly becoming less of a helper position and more of a petty bureaucrat.

Actually, I’m exaggerating, for I knew even then that a Ph.D. in early modern European history wasn’t likely to open many doors, but I did have hopes that I could do something new and different with the degree. As it turns out, a series of unfortunate incidents ended up saving me from any aspirations I may have held for a career in academia and a political game that involves more back-stabbing than Renaissance Italy. As the rescue came just as I was beginning to prepare for comps, it also had the benefit of allowing me to gain a body of knowledge I cherish without all of the headaches of comps and the dissertation.

The point of this long-winded post is that as a graduate student, I sat in a great many courses and learned a great many things. One thing I learned was that under no circumstances should I, or any of my colleagues, ever consider writing for the mass market. Autobiographies were out. We shouldn’t dare consider publishing popular histories (you know, the kind of books people actually buy, rather than academic monographs which sell only as many copies as there are libraries wanting to purchase them).

And god help us, don’t ever let it be known we might be so much as remotely interested in writing historical fiction. If faculty in the department ever so much as suspected that was why we were in graduate school, we’d be run out of town.

Even then, as a graduate student believing that I would succeed (because I was getting great reviews of my work and putting enormous effort into my research), I took that advice with a grain of salt. Even though I read historical fiction and had a largely-completed novel grounded in medieval history under my belt, of course I would only write serious academically-rigorous work henceforth.

Source:  Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

So back to this rabbit hole I mentioned. Tonight I did a casual Google search for the individual who warned graduate students never to write historical fiction, only to discover that they have a fandom blog devoted to a particular individual (who, coincidentally, I also very much like). Moreover, because they no longer hold the position in academia that allowed us to cross paths, they are considering a new graduate degree in writing so they can pursue ‘non-fiction’ writing as a career.

I’m keeping this as vague as possible because while this individual was not one of my favorite instructors, I wish them no ill will, and do not write this post to embarrass them. (In fact, if they ever find this blog post, I’d tell them that leaving that toxic environment was likely the best thing that ever happened to them.)

But all the same, finding their blog, and reading a couple of their posts about their own career, led me to consider a lot of things.

One thing in particular I’m thinking about is the whole concept of advice from our mentors, superiors, or others with authority over us in one way or another.

When such people tell us “don’t ever do X” or “you really should consider Y” it’s probably always worth taking a moment to reflect on their own background and consider their own possible motivations. Are they giving us this advice because they truly care about us, or because they themselves are bitter from their own experiences? Do they make us jump through hoops and dangle possible futures in front of us because they themselves had the same thing done to them? Might they feel trapped by their own life choices and wish they could have other opportunities, and envy their students who have yet to make choices?

And if suddenly finding themselves bereft of the authority and power they once enjoyed, might they sing a different tune?

Back to the advice never to write historical fiction: I’m very happy that while I ‘heard’ the advice in class that day, I never took it seriously.

For more than two decades I’ve been a fiction writer, minus the brief interlude when I was a graduate student (and truly, all history is a bit of fiction in itself, but that’s another post). Even as I heard the advice to never consider becoming a fiction writer, I knew that doing just that was one of my options – and in truth, one of the most appealing options, even then.

Now that I’m out of academia and back to writing, I’m giving serious consideration to my next novel (that is, the novel I will start in November as part of this year’s NaNoWriMo) being, you guessed it, historical fiction.

I have to wonder, though, if the instructor who shared those words isn’t still grappling with their own (bad) advice, even as they seek authenticity in their own life, and wishing that they had chosen a different path.


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