At times research is like pulling teeth but then there are the wonderful times when you race through the work, doors open one after another revealing hints that suggest that you might be close to a big break through. Over the last few months my research has been humming along. In the couple of weeks it has been particularly fruitful. This week I have been pursuing some fascinating stories in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia.
I am immersed in the thoughts of some of the most reflective men in the Australian Army during World War I through their diaries. While these soldiers are among the most forthcoming soldiers to wield a pen in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), they often stop writing when I find the subject most interesting. Over the last few months I have been working with other sources to reveal more about those tantalising stories.
The beliefs of the soldiers of the AIF were cloaked by the larrikinism of some soldiers and derisive comments about army chaplains. Their letters and diaries are dominated by accounts of the work of war but every now and then there will be a sentence or two which sheds light on the complex beliefs of the soldier. Surrounded by death every day and charged with the task of killing others, some Australian soldiers pondered the great spiritual questions of life and death as well as the moral questions which a war inevitably brings. I am now searching in other archival sources to find out more about the comments soldiers made in their diaries. In particular I am researching the stories of soldiers who may not have left any writing for us to research today.
My research is taking me into questions of conscientious objection in World War I, the nature of the education Australian soldiers received while growing up and the increasing interest in spiritualism as the death toll climbed. I am looking beyond the conventional, social expressions of belief at the time such as attendance and attitude towards church services. Some soldiers reflected the stance of the mainstream churches when they wrote in their diaries but others were decidedly unconventional in the thoughts they wrote about. It is this diversity of belief which interests me.
I am doing this research for a book that will explore the inner beliefs of Australian soldiers while they were fighting a calamitous war. Last week I passed a significant milestone. I have now written my chapter outline. While I already had a good idea of what my book would look like, there is nothing like writing it down. I still have a lot of research to do but I have a good road map that will give me added focus to what I am doing.
My excitement at writing down the plan that had been in my head for some time made me reflect on the importance of writing down the thoughts that rumble in my mind. Writing it down makes the nebulous, shifting smatterings of ideas coalesce into concrete observations and plans. Writing it down opens an important conversation with yourself which is different to the mental conversation that writers so often have every day. Transforming ideas into letters and words on a screen amplifies the volume of your internal interlocutor. The words on the screen challenge you. Ideas that seemed so great in your head can seem paltry and even wrong when they shine back in your face. The reason I was so excited when I wrote my chapter outline is that my visual challenger silently told me that these ideas work and that I have a coherent project in the making.
The chapter outline highlighted where I need to do more work and the areas which should be the focus for further investigation. Almost immediately I made another break through into an area that historians have not explored before. I found it hard to sleep as more research ideas floated through my head. Over several days I kept on finding more fruitful material that helps me expand on that breakthrough. I attended the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, my head awash with excitement. I returned home early and did some more work.
I have also been applying for funding. This is a good process I found, even if I am not successful. Once again the value lies in making thoughts concrete by writing them down. In doing so I found that an archive I had known about previously is a richer source of material than I had thought. While my research starts with digitised archives using tools provided by modern technology, traditional archival research is indispensable. The combination of the two research methods unearths incidents and observations that historians have not previously highlighted.
Recently I was told that the paper I proposed for this year’s Australian Historical Association conference has been accepted. I was relieved as I had written the proposal in difficult conditions. The proposal was not as deep or eloquent as I would have wished. Moving house is not conducive to good writing!
The act of writing this paper will assist me to gather my ideas, challenge them and reveal to me something useful for the book. Sharing ideas with others can also lead to further research ideas. It is nerve-wracking presenting your work to experienced and respected researchers, but it is a challenge that can push your own work to higher things.
The message to me this month is clear.
Write it down!