History is made in the edit.
That might sound absurd. Surely history is what happened in the past? It’s people, places, and events, the forward march of progress or the weary slump of decline. You can’t edit the world.
But history isn’t the world. It isn’t even the past. It’s our understanding of that past, the version we tell ourselves based on the information we currently have. Like any good story, it comes from making choices: what to include or exclude, what to emphasise, which words to use. Businessman or slaver, patriot or tyrant, republic or empire.
This is true of our personal histories as much as the vast arcs of society. Many psychologists now view human memory not as a static record but as an active, ever-changing entity. Each time we remember an event, we summon the last version we stored in our minds and run through it again. But the details are always incomplete, so we fill the gaps, adding and distorting, then file away the new version for next time. The memory is edited over and over, each replay strengthening it but also increasing the risk of distortion. Our most powerful, urgent memories are the least reliable. We weave the best history we can from the frayed threads in our minds, stitching them together into life stories.
Editing is purposeful. It shapes a story toward a goal. For fiction, that can be to delight or to horrify, to teach or to entertain.
The same is true when we tell our histories. You might make a version of your life that gives you courage, purpose, or a sense of fulfilment. If you suffer from depression, your traitor brain might edit out the bright moments to leave a story of despair.
Looking at broader histories, the narrative always serves a goal. National curriculum history fosters a connection between citizens while reinforcing Britain’s place within the world. Eric Hobsbawm’s books emphasise the importance of the social and collective, encouraging readers to challenge the society they live in. The history permitted by Joseph Stalin, painting opponents out of the picture, reinforced his position of power.
My novella Ashes of the Ancestors is about that editing of the past. A collection of ghosts preserved in a monastery each embody a different view on their past. There’s an empress using history to hold the land together, a crusader who wants to tell an atoning tale, and a warlord trying to thwart her rivals from beyond the grave. Each has their own edit.
The living servants who surround them have their own, more personal relationships with the past, the moments they obsess over and the ones they lie about. They use their histories, true or false, to make their current selves and shape the world around them, whether out of greed, vengeance, or altruism. The protagonist, Magdalisa, has turned memories of her family into a story about the importance of tradition, a story that holds her in place.
As my host Dion could tell you, editing isn’t just about what’s in front of you. Sometimes a problem in chapter six is best fixed by reshaping chapter one, to make sense of what comes later. Taking a more critical, insightful view of the past can give us a sharper perspective on the present, and with it a more hopeful future.
And as Dion could also tell you, sometimes editing is amputation, cutting away a rotten limb to save the body, however beautiful that limb was. History is fascinating and wonderful. It can provide us with insights, inspiration, and entertainment. But if we cling onto it too hard, we let the ghosts of the past edit our future, preventing us from living the best stories we can. Sometimes we have to let the past go.
Editing is amazing. By adding, subtracting, and transforming, it turns the crude lump of a story into something far more valuable. That’s true of history as well as of fiction, and it’s true of ourselves as well as the world we live in. It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, but it is empowering.
Thanks to Alex for his edits on Ashes of the Ancestors, and to Dion for giving me room to ramble on like this.
Andrew Knighton is an author of short stories, comics, and novellas. As a freelance writer, he’s ghostwritten over thirty novels in other people’s names. He lives in Yorkshire with a cat, an academic, and a heap of unread books. His latest novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, is out on 7 February from Luna Press Publishing. You can find him at andrewknighton.com, on Twitter as @gibbondemon, and on Mastodon as @firstname.lastname@example.org .