We’ve all been there; you’re searching through a new journal, perusing the library, or poking around JSTOR, your eyes alight over a title that relates directly to your project. Delighted to find someone to speak directly to in your dissertation, or someone to sit on a panel with, you eagerly begin to read. This is amazing, you think, as the author cites similar historiography, or a source you might have been looking for. This is so great, what wonderful points…and then you get to the argument paragraph. Uh oh.
The moment we all dread has come.
You found someone who already wrote your project.
Your heart pounds; your hands sweat; and you consider dropping out of graduate school and becoming a sheep herder in Ireland (just me?).
I encountered one of these moments not long ago. Sitting in a hot, humid apartment on a Sunday in Mumbai, I followed a trail of citations to an older project on the ecology of plague in the city. I was thrilled to find someone who might lead me to a source I hadn’t considered, or who might have compiled the statistics I was laboriously transposing from document to excel spreadsheet. And I did find some of that; but as I read, I also found many of the key conclusions I had come to in my nearly three months in the archive.
Oh no. The panic started. I idly started looking at property values of farms in Ireland. But then, I remembered the last time I had worried about the unoriginality of my project.
I was a senior in college, working on my honors thesis project. I had spent several months in Northern Ireland reading through documents related to public housing in the Troubles and conducting oral histories. Now, at home and faced with the process of writing it, I began to worry about the monumental and overwhelming literature surrounding the Troubles; it felt like every aspect of the conflict that could have been written about had already been written about. I stalled after the introduction; how could I tackle such a thorny, recent conflict as a mere undergraduate?
It was one of my thesis advisors (and one of the best professors I’ve had the good fortune to work with) who gave me the advice that got me through my writing block then. And it was his voice that I heard in my head in Mumbai, nearly five years later.
“No one has your mind, or your experiences, or your voice. So no one will ever write something the way you do.”
It’s a simple enough statement on the surface; but underneath, it contains an incredible truth. Just by the sheer fact that the words are coming from your fingers, after filtering through your unique brain, with its unique agglomeration of experiences and knowledge, and after months or years of thinking about a topic, reading sources, and caring about it, your work really can’t be anything but original.
It was in remembering that conversation with Dr. Steigerwald that I relaxed enough to think more closely about the work in front of me in Mumbai. Suddenly, I appreciated having something that echoed my own thoughts so closely; because upon closer examination, there were articulations that were dated; areas that I, with my scientific and ecological training, could flesh out that the original author had merely made mention of. There were points that would enrich my work and my perspective to engage with. My chapter crystallized in front of me, and I wrote the strongest articulation of my argument yet, largely because of the article I had just read and grappled with. In other words, I found what made my work original by addressing my fear of unoriginality.
In thinking about it over the last couple of months, I realized that what these moments are, in reality, are tiny moments of doubt. Doubt in our abilities to work as scholars; doubt in our power to say anything new or interesting; and doubt in are archival skills. But what I also know is that these moments are entirely unfounded. We are in many ways blessed to live in an era of so much learning, knowledge production, and information; it means that over the decades of absorption, processing, and engagement we undergo, we are less and less likely over time to have had the same experiences as the scholars around us. I think environmental historians in particular are fortunate in this manner. Not only is the field relatively young, and therefore constantly welcoming new works and new perspectives, but it is also inherently interdisciplinary. Environmental history’s constant engagement with urban studies, ecology, agrarian studies, biology, and Anthropocene studies means that we have multiple perspectives with which to engage, multiple fields of research constantly producing new knowledge to absorb, consider, grapple with – and change our perspective. The odds of two environmental historians reading all the same secondary material, gleaning the same message from that material, and reading their sources in exactly the same way is shrinking every day. The real beauty of academic research is that there will always be something new to be said, or a new way to say it. And who knows when the way you say something might have a lasting impact?
So the purpose of my post today is mostly to relay Dr. Steigerwald’s advice. When you write, don’t worry about writing something terribly unoriginal; it will be original because it is yours. Embrace similarities, and learn to love the person who already wrote your project: they might just show you what is special about your own mind.
Go forth, and write!