“I don’t think of myself as an historian in the conventional understanding of the word. I’m a writer, who has chosen other days from our own, other times, as my field. That’s what I want to write about.”
David McCullough wasn’t trained as an historian, but he’s one of the most respected and celebrated historians of our time. In this HBO documentary that originally aired in 2008, “David McCullough: Painting with Words,” McCullough discusses how he began his writing career and how he approaches his craft. It’s also an intimate look at the man and the joy and pride he brings to his work.
McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for his biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman. He describes the process of diving into the source materials such as letters, diaries and what others said about his subjects. He describes the process as total immersion and truly getting to know the person. He feels like he knows his subjects better than people in his own life, and in some respects better than they knew themselves. In many cases he knows how they will react to various situation.
With John Adams, McCullough describes becoming immersed in the 18th century. He wants to go where Adams went, experience things he experience. In the documentary we see McCullough climbing an old church tower that Adams had climbed in order to have some sense of the experience and what Adams saw. These details coupled with thorough research of the source materials drive the process.
And of course you have to be able to tell a good story. That talent is a must if you want anyone other than scholars reading your work. McCullough explains, “I love to tell a story. And I particularly love to tell a true story. Of what really happened to real people. Who were as alive, and as human as we are. In some ways maybe more so.”
The documentary covers other aspects of his career as well, particularly his work in television. He hosted “American Experience” for twelve years and narrated “The Civil War” by Ken Burns. This celebrity status certainly raised his profile and helped him sell books, but eventually he gave that up as it took away too much time from his writing. Still, McCullough seems to enjoy the spotlight and loves meeting strangers and fans as we see from several clips.
McCullough’s enthusiasm for history is on full display throughout. “History is not about dates, and quotes, and obscure provisos. History is about life; about change; about consequences. Cause and effect. It’s about the mystery of human nature. The mystery of time. And it isn’t just about politics and the military and social issues, which is almost always the ways it’s taught. It’s about music, and poetry, and drama, and science, and medicine, and money and love.”
With a run time of only 40 minutes, the documentary flies by and is well worth the time. Anyone interested in history, biography or the writing process will likely love it. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime along with HBO On Demand.