Learning From the Past

We are often told that those who refuse to learn from the past are destined to repeat it. I agree. The past is a wealth of thought ready to mine for those willing to go looking. With that said, most people aren’t looking at the past. Instead, they are looking at history.

“Wait,” I hear you asking. “Isn’t history how we record the past?” Sort of. History is a narrative constructed from elements of the past. Any author can tell you that writing real life, unfiltered, is not a good story. Life is hectic. Life doesn’t adhere to logical paths and clear plots. Instead, it flits here and there, developing in multiple directions at once.

Open up a history textbook and you’ll see why I say it is fiction. Based on a true story, but not the whole story. There’s a clear narrative. There’s a sense of progression. Movement. Things go from lesser to greater. It moves from a point of lowness and improves with time.

Pick out a figure in history and you’ll find that we gloss over anything that doesn’t fit the narrative. Benedict Arnold was a traitor who almost succeeded at a plot that would end our budding country. We all know that. What we don’t hear is how he was probably the only reason we’d managed to succeed as well. He a hero, seen as a man who succeeded at what few others could have even considered. Impulsive, abrasive, and unable to see his own failings, sure. That doesn’t change that he pulled off several major victories. It doesn’t negate that Washington considered him one of the best men on his side. There’s more to the story than history offers us.

Hitler had a human side despite the monstrous things he did. Jackson was a terrible human being, yet stays on our money. America was ‘discovered’, despite already populated. Technology is ‘progress’ that moves in a straight line. An honest look at the past and present both say otherwise about progress.

So what’s my point of this article? Well, first it is that you shouldn’t accept the linear view of the past as what ‘history’ offers. Second is that as an author, there is so much you can pull from our lost past. So much we can learn and apply. Things we can make a part of our daily lives and things we can use to drive our stories. Don’t accept what we all ‘know’. Learn from the past. The honest past.

What about yourselves? Is there some bit of history that fascinated you enough to research? How did you find that the past differed from the historic narrative? What have you done with that information?

What are your thoughts?