Wednesday, February 10, 2010

So What CAN You Do With a History Major? Part 22

Become a writer and documentary film maker.

Today we are featuring an interview with Sarah Baker, a former history major who currently works as a writer and documentary film maker from her home in Bern, North Carolina. Here is a brief bio:

When Sarah Baker finds a subject she’s passionate about, she is unyielding in revealing its story.

This passion for storytelling began when Baker was a junior in college. While writing a research paper on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and his still-unidentified victim “Orange Socks,” Baker learned that the victim’s grave had never been marked. Once her paper was complete, Baker contacted the funeral home that had handled the woman’s burial and arranged for a marker to be placed on her grave. This experience made Baker realize that she could, through her pen, give a voice to people whom the public had long since forgotten.

A post-graduate internship at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (commonly known as the Kennedy assassination site) taught Baker how to handle complex, and sometimes sensitive, situations with delicacy. She also learned to examine all sides of an issue and how to present the information in such a way that the public is able to draw its own conclusions.

Baker’s next project was a seven-year labor of love—a documentary film about silent film star Olive Thomas. Over the course of her research, Baker located ten of Thomas’ 20 films—all of which had been considered lost. The resulting documentary, Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart, executive produced by Hugh Hefner, was released to DVD (2004) along with Thomas’ film The Flapper —the first time this film had been available to the public since 1920. Baker is proud to have given the public more of an in-depth look at Thomas’ full life rather than her infamous characterization in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

Along the way, Baker has edited, an e-zine devoted to the 1920s. She also created “Silent Sisters,” a four-day film festival featuring silent film actresses Louise Brooks, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Marion Davies, for The Women’s Museum in Dallas, Texas. Her first book, Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, was published by Bear Manor Media in 2009. She has also been published in Fort Worth Child and Southwest Blues magazines. Sarah Baker lives in New Bern, North Carolina, with husband Zach and daughter Olivia.

I recently conducted a short e-mail interview with Sarah about her experience as an undergraduate history major and how she has used the skills she learned in that major in her current work in writing and film.

JF: Why did you decide to major in history?

I started out as an English major in college because I knew I wanted to be a writer. But halfway through my sophomore year I had the terrible but true realization that I completely suck as a fiction writer. I have no imagination and I could never get a flow going in my prose.

But I found that I really enjoyed telling other people's stories. I loved researching people's lives. I loved putting the puzzle pieces together. And nothing I could have come up with compares to the reality of what other people have lived, really. So I switched to History paired with Women's Studies and I never looked back.

JF: During your undergraduate experience did you ever ask yourself: "What am I going to do with this major?" If so, how did you answer that question?

I never really thought past graduation--at that point, I was just really driven to graduate. I knew that I would be able to get a job to pay the bills and help send my husband to school, just as he sent me to school. I knew that I would always write on the side until I could make it a full-time career.

In the back of my mind I thought about going back to get my MLS in Archival Science, but I never really needed that advanced degree to find interesting jobs. At this point I would say it's highly unlikely that I will ever go back to school. I am really more concerned with saving up for my daughter's college years.

JF: How did your study of history in college prepare you to do what you are doing now? Can you see any connection between your undergraduate major and your work as a writer and documentary film maker?

I occupy a place in no-man's land, between academic writing and pure fandom. My goal is to be a biographer, working in the medium that suits my subject best (film or print), but I also want to construct a biography that is both entertaining and informed.

So many biographies--particularly biographies of Hollywood stars--veer off into fanfic territory. There's no research to back up any of these authors' claims. Handling someone else's life story is a damned serious business to me, and I am somewhat appalled at what passes for "research" these days.

My training in history helped me to learn investigative techniques--how to follow a paper trail, for example, until I find the answer I need. It also helped me to become very comfortable working with primary source documents. I was always taught by all of my professors to have an argument--but to be able to back it up with primary source documentation.

In fact, one of my professors--she was a Women's Studies prof--required us to come into class everyday prepared for battle. My friends and I would have horrible performance anxiety before coming to class but it was worth it. I felt very well-trained by the time I graduated.

JF: What is an average day like for "Sarah Baker, Author and Documentary Film Maker?"

I am also a stay at home mom to my 3 year old daughter, so everything I do is constructed around her schedule. Before she wakes up, I answer email. When she's at school, I work on whatever project I am involved in--I write, I look for grant funding, I do research. Then I turn it off until nap time. And so forth. I don't really have a typical day--I don't even have my own office.

Right now I work wherever and whenever and I can't survive without my laptop. But it would be nice to have my own workspace some day.

JF: Do you have any advice for college students majoring in history or those considering a major in history?

As a history major, it's just assumed that you have to go to grad school to have a career. And if you want to go to grad school, then by all means do it. But you can get a job and do what you love and not have an advanced degree. In fact, I think we need more History BAs doing the writing out there. Please don't leave it to the communications majors. Just kidding. Sort of.

Thanks Sarah!