Business, Community & Government

Writing History

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Lesson time 10:57 min

Doris explains her approach to studying and writing about history, including how she collaborated with Steven Spielberg on the film Lincoln.

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Topics include: Keeping a Diary · Working With Filmmakers: Lincoln · Find Your Passion


[MUSIC PLAYING] - You know, what's so important, I think, about studying history and teaching history is that we know how events turned out. And somehow that colors your understanding of how they came to be. So you know that World War II ended with the Allied victory, but if you're writing about history or you're learning about it, you should only know what the person at the time living through knew, so you can recreate that sense of worry, the fear, will it work out all right? The great historian, who was a mentor to me in some ways by reading her works, Barbara Tuchman, said that even if you're writing about a war, you have to imagine you do not know how the war ended, so you can bring your reader with you every step along the way from beginning to middle to end. For example, I was talking not long ago about D-Day, and D-Day of course took place June 6, 1944, when the Allies finally were able to get into France. And everybody knows that it worked out well. But I was thinking about the day before D-Day, June 5, when you don't know how it's going to turn out, when Churchill cannot sleep at night because he's worried that 20,000 people will be killed the next morning, when Eleanor Roosevelt is pacing the halls and she can't sleep, when the soldiers are worried, how are we going to make it to the shore? That's how you have to teach history, so that you can captivate the person back in time and realize that they only see as far as they know that day. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can't start with the end. And I think that's what too often happens when we teach history. You learn the dates, and dates are important, and I'm really-- I think it's important to know what happened when. But you want to know the meaning of it. What was the drama of it? What did the people feel? My process always depends upon primary sources. And the reason for that is I've chosen to write about presidents who are so well-known. And the reason they're so well-known is they may be the most interesting presidents, or they lived in the most challenging times. But if you're going to write about somebody like Lincoln or somebody like Franklin Roosevelt or Teddy Roosevelt, you can't be just relying ever on secondary sources, because you have to come up with your own storyline. There've been too many biographies already written. So I love letters more than anything. And I think the reason I came to write "Team of Rivals" about Lincoln's cabinet, not just about him, was that I was up in Auburn, New York, and I visited Seward's house, his secretary of state. And I learned that Seward had written thousands of letters to his wife while he was in Washington, because she was up in Auburn, New York. And the minute I delved into these letters, I knew, yes, I can get to know Seward. And Seward's gossiping in the letters about Lincoln. And he's gossiping about the other candidates. And he's gossiping about the other people in the cabinet. An...

About the Instructor

For more than 50 years, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has studied great American presidents. Now the Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you leadership through the lens of U.S. presidential history. With timeless stories of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ, Doris shares practical wisdom and a template for honing leadership skills. Manage a crisis, craft a message, and guide a team like extraordinary leaders of the past.

Featured MasterClass Instructor

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin teaches you how to develop the leadership qualities of exceptional American presidents.

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