Does what we write define us as writers?

My book Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand was published late last year by David Bateman Ltd. It was my second science-oriented book in a month.

It’s not often that authors are able to publish books in quick succession with major publishers. In point of fact, my schedule included four releases between July 2014 and January 2015, and this is not due to luck. Such results have to be worked for. I sacrificed time that many perhaps take for granted to achieve it. Coal 200 pxCoal remains a particularly important title for me, because it sets out my views on climate change. To me, the deeper ramifications of the themes I explore are vital questions that must be answered if we are to ensure the long-term survival of humanity.

Both my recent science books have provoked some curious comments from the media in New Zealand – ‘how can a historian understand physics’, ‘I thought you were a military historian’ and so forth. As if I were a one-trick pony. A review of my science book Living On Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House 2014) in the New Zealand Listener referred to me as a ‘historian’.

I’ve published a lot of history – but if I have to wear a label of any kind, the word is ‘writer’. I write on things that interest me – and, for a long time, that was history. But it’s not an exclusive interest. I always regard my home field as the sciences, particularly physics, with which I was brought up and where, aged 15, I won a regional science prize for my interpretation of Einstein’s physics as it applied to black holes. I was taught, at post-graduate level, by Peter Munz, a student of Karl Popper – who defined the philosophy of modern scientific method – and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I don’t validate myself as ‘an historian’, still less by imagined ‘status’ in a particular topic. I just do stuff that involves thinking, and which carries my enthusiasm and allows me to express my thoughts on the human condition. To me there is no challenge or reward in repeatedly going over a single topic. And that’s true for all things we might write about. That doesn’t mean falling into the Kruger-Dunning trap – the supposition that a subject is ‘easy’. You know – ‘History – it’s just collecting data. How hard can it be?’ Quite.

The challenge is achieving an understanding of topic before venturing forth. It also means also accepting, given my experience with military history, that public-funded bullies probably exist in every field, and we have to accept their tactics as part of the human condition. Where next? Well, my next writing project has involved me sitting down and doing a lot of math, purely to make sure I got the background details accurate.

The term you want isn’t ‘geek’. It’s ‘intellectual badass’. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

2 thoughts on “Does what we write define us as writers?

  1. I had already been thinking about commenting on your book about NZ coal, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to say something on the subject now. For 18 years I wrote about the coal market, most of those years as US Editor of a Financial Times publication called “International Coal Report.” So many times, while I was doing that work and also since then, people have asked what kind of work I did (or used to do), and it has often been hard to explain to people who had an instantly negative reaction to the word “coal.” There are many different levels and many different aspects to the subject. The first thing I always had to do was to say, rather defensively, “My job was not to promote the coal industry, but to describe prices and tonnages, who was buying and who was selling.” My angle was not one of science or engineering (or public relations), but a financial angle. A big story for me, for instance, would have been the signing of a contract between the Brazilian steel mills with Australian suppliers for coking coal. The fun part of my job was that I got to go to places like Brazil and meet the key market players. I found out long ago that many people aren’t even aware of the role of coal in the steel industry as opposed to the power generation industry. I became somewhat specialized in the metallurgical side of the business, and eventually I did tackle a somewhat engineering-oriented subject, the use of pulverized coal injection in blast furnaces, which reduces the need for coke production. And would you believe I was a philosophy major in college? And that I have written a couple of novels and maintain a history-oriented blog? These days we seem so oriented toward acquiring specialist credentials, and the idea of broadening out seems less and less acceptable. I was fortunate to work for a man at the FT who was not only knowledgeable about the coal market but was a big reader (we shared an interest in Anthony Trollope) and a big hiker (he loaned me his books about mountains in North Wales and the Lake District). By the way, I remember dealing with NZ coal just a bit, because it was an insignificant quantity in the international market, but I remember the Japanese market took small tonnages for reasons of diversity of supply.

    1. I often suspect that specialists lose oversight of the broader context of what they are doing. Generalists usually have a better chance of getting a valid handle on the big picture and the relationships between all the aspects of the sum of human knowledge and the world we live in. And in that sense the focus on broad synthesis makes them specialists too. The main issue I have here in NZ is that specilalists use the fact of a competitor in the field also writing on other subjects as a device for worth-denial. One of the hazards of such a small community I suspect.

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