Back in grad school--during one of those countless, three-hour-long night courses where we M.A. & beginning Ph.D. students mingled with the ABD's and sat roundtable fashion discussing the intricacies of methodologies and historiography--a subject came up which haunts me, if you will, to this day. Namely, it was at what point does a historian decide to call off his/her research and begin writing. It may seem simple enough, but as anyone who has written history can tell you, it is anything but. At one point during the discussion, I am not sure if it was a fellow student or a professor, but someone said, "No historian is ever truly satisfied with his sources." And with that, the discussion moved on. . .
I remember distinctly that quote. I agree with it, wholeheartedly, and when I sit down to try to finally put words on paper, I repeat it over and over in my head.
Yet I find it very difficult to accept it and move on with my writing.
For more than a decade, I have traveled to scores of archives and libraries, gathered data, scoured shelves, filled notebook after notebook, and did just about everything a researcher does collecting information on both the 48th Pennsylvania and Brigadier General James Nagle. My wife and those who know me well labels this as some kind of obsessive compulsion, and I am sure psychologists would agree. My intention is to ultimately turn all of this research into two books: one, building off my master's thesis, being a social portrait of the 48th, not a retelling of the regiment's campaigns and battles, but a detailed look at the soldiers themselves; the other, a biography of Nagle, an obscure and entirely forgotten Civil War general. I have a ton of information, literally thousands--and thousands--of pages, seriously, yet whenever I decide to organize my notes, prepare outlines, and begin the task of writing, well, there comes that nagging, persistent voice in the back of my head telling me, "Not yet. . .You're not ready yet. There is more out there."
And this voice has always won out, at least as far as these projects are concerned, especially the Nagle one. I must have begun this "book" at least half a dozen times throughout the past five or so years, writing several chapters and then shelving the project as I returned to the seemingly unending task of research.
I cannot help but think that there is yet more to discover; more letters and diaries, more sources, both primary and secondary, and this thought simply paralyzes my efforts. I keep imagining the discovery of a "smoking gun," so to speak. . .a trove of source materials that will provide more insight and answer those unanswered questions. As FBI Agent Fox Mulder would say, "The Truth Is Out There." Sometimes it does seem that my projects are, indeed, "X Files."
But while I keep waiting, my work is simply not getting done.
So, I suppose the question is this: when does one know when to say when when it comes to concluding the research and beginning the writing? I imagine that once one reaches this point, a determined, and I mean determined, effort must be made not to start up again on that very slippery slope of research and to just push forward with what one has already got. To state forthrightly, "No historian is ever truly satisfied with his sources," to accept this fact and labor onward. Yet as I sit here composing this post, I know also that this, too, must be very difficult.
I imagine also that I am certainly not the only one who has lost sleep over this concern. So if anyone out there has any advice, suggestions, or sage wisdom, I am hoping you would be so kind as to share.