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If you like David McCullough's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Shelby Foote,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
James Michener,
Peggy Noonan,
Vincent Scully
and Neil Sheehan

David McCullough's recommended reading: Reveille in Washington

David McCullough also appears in the videos:
Democracy and Citizenship: The 250th Celebration of Thomas Jefferson's Birthday

So, You Want to Be a Writer

Related Links:
David McCullough
NEH Lecture
Paris Review

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David McCullough
David McCullough
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David McCullough Interview (page: 2 / 4)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

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  David McCullough

I had read a lot of history, read a lot of very good writers who had chosen to write history as a kind of other territory, almost like another country. The past is another country, another part of the universe.


David McCullough: Barbara Tuchman, Bruce Catton, all in effect, in a way, what I was, which was a lapsed journalist. The work of people like Margaret Leech, for example, that wrote a wonderful book called Reveille in Washington, about life inside of the government and in Washington during the Civil War. That encouragement that one gets, that lift one gets from the books that move you and change your life! Books do change your life.

I read a wonderful account of, in an interview with Thornton Wilder, the great playwright, in a collection of interviews done by the Paris Review called, Writers at Work. I still go back and read those interviews for inspiration and understanding; these date from the late 1950s/early 1960s. And in that conversation with the interviewer...

Thornton Wilder was asked how he got the ideas for his books, and he said -- or his plays -- and he said, "I imagine a story that I would like to read, or see done on the stage. And if nobody has written that book or that play, I write it so that I can read it or I can see it on the stage." Well, I wanted to be able to read a really first-rate book about the incredible story behind the disaster at Johnstown in 1889, and I found there was no such book. But having read that interview I thought, "Well maybe you could write the book that you would like to read." And I am convinced that the only way we ever really learn anything is by doing it.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I found that with my next book even more so.

I set out to try to understand how the Brooklyn Bridge was built -- the engineering, yes, but also the human story, which is very complicated, and dramatic, and moving, and I had to teach myself the engineering involved. I found the material, the treasure house of letters and diaries stowed away in an attic. That's supposed to be a mythic experience. That happened to me. I found all of those letters and diaries of the Roebling family, which -- they were responsible for the bridge, the design and the building of the bridge -- in a closet up in the attic of a library in Upstate New York, at Troy, New York, at the RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the material was untouched. It hadn't been catalogued, it hadn't been sorted out, hundreds and thousands of items stuffed away in a big storage closet, and I had to unscramble it all. It was like the ultimate tangled fishing line that I had to slowly put back the way it was meant to be, and then I had to try and understand it, and it took the better part of several years just figuring that out. Now if I had gone to a lecture, or if I had been given a textbook, I could have absorbed what was in the lecture, I could have absorbed what was in the textbook, and I could have had it in my head long enough to take the test to pass the course. But probably six months, maybe a year, certainly six years later it would be gone out of my head. But it's now been almost 25 years since I did the work on that project, and I could sit down and take a test on all of that and do very well right now because I had to do it myself.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I think what we must do in education, for example, is to bring the lab techniques used in science to the teaching of the humanities, to the teaching of history, and English, and journalism, and the arts. That's the great thing about the arts. You don't learn to paint, except by painting. You don't learn to play the piano, except by playing the piano. By the same token, I think you become an historian, I think you become a scholar by being required to do original scholarly work, original detective work of a kind that's involved with doing scholarly research. And once you do that, once you get on that track, you catch the bug, and you find out that this is really exciting.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Now scientists know that, and scientists know that when they teach science. But in English, in the humanities, I think we're behind on it. And make no mistake...

The humanities are immensely important, and the arts are immensely important, and this decline in the teaching of the arts and the humanities in our school system -- particularly our public school system, and in the grade schools of our country -- is a disgrace. It's a shame. We're cheating our children. And the idea that the arts are any less important, any less vital to a culture than history or mathematics or science is a dangerous misconception; bad for the country, bad for our way of life because all of these things are an extension of the experience of being alive.

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This page last revised on Feb 14, 2008 17:08 EST
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