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“Weed out the lumber,” says author David McCullough

The other night Tim Russert interviewed author David McCullough. Since I had been part of the Borders team working his Houston signing last week, I pulled up a chair and watched. The man loves his work: He leaned forward, his eyes sparkled, and a smile played across his lips as he began another story culled from his latest research. When the program ended, I googled around to see what else I could find on McCullough and ran across an interview with the NEH Chairman, Bruce Cole. When McCullough discussed his writing process, these words captured my attention. 

"I work very hard on the writing, writing and rewriting and trying to weed out the lumber. I’m very aware how many distractions the reader has in life today, how many good reasons there are to put the book down. To hold the reader’s attention, you have to bring the person who’s reading the book inside the experience of the time: What was it like to have been alive then? What were these people like as human beings?"–Historian David McCullough, author of 1776, in an interview in 2004 with Bruce Cole, NEH Chairman

What he says holds true for any type of writing, whether it’s in the present or past. If you don’t engage the reader, how can a writer ever hope to have the reader successfully disconnect from the real world and follow him or her down the writing path toward an experience that is rooted in word? Reworking a piece over and over in an attempt to create an experience of language that will capture the hearts and minds of the readers, that will center and ground them in the piece takes real work–and a passion for the subject. If there is a Santa Claus of history, I’m sure he’s much like David McCullough: the man with a passion for the past, a twinkle in his eye, and a real gift for storytelling.


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