Writing My “Story”

When first hearing the title “Why I Write” for both Orwell ‘s and Didion’s writing, I thought about the reason why I write is normally because I have to. Outside of classroom assignments I don’t typically spend time writing much besides maybe some personal thoughts or ideas in a journal I use occasionally. I’m not a blogger or a poet or even a big journaler, but right at the beginning of Orwell’s declaration of why he writes I realized how untrue it was that my sole purpose for writing is not because I have to.

I love the way Orwell explains the stories that he narrated in his head about the world around him. “Quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw,” was how he explained it. It’s kind of like his own reality show happening in his head – entertainment from his daily life. I personally can’t say I narrate my own life as if I were writing a novel, but I have joked with my friends about what a reality show based on our lives would be like – what scenes, locations, and plots would be common. Maybe we are writing our own “stories” in a modern Orwell-like way.

What differentiates me from Orwell, however, is how I use those “stories” and scenes in my head more in a way that Didion explains. I remember those details, those thoughts and turn them into my writing. I try to figure out those events to make some greater analysis of my surroundings. Like Didion I “write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

I wish I could say that these writings evolved into pieces that evoked some political thought or stirred some ideas like Orwell’s did, but that never seems to be the case. Actually, those are my favorite types of writing to read myself – ones that make me understand things in a new way and make new parallels about important issues. Unfortunately, I tend to be so wrapped up in my own story that I don’t take the next step to purpose my writing for some greater idea.

The piece I’m bringing in for our assignment is a creative non-fiction essay written by Bich Minh Ngugen. I can imagine her agreeing with Didion about her reasons for writing. The essay uses a narrative of her childhood to depict the struggles she had growing up in an all-white neighborhood while she her family had immigrated from Vietnam before she was born. She uses so many vivid scenes to show us her conflict. She uses her words to create these scenes for us that were so real to her, and by the end we are left as torn as she is. I don’t feel a sense of resolution or notice some great political agenda being pushed, but I do get a sense of understanding that is unique to this author. I hope that my writing can be something like hers, showing a reader an idea in a way that haven’t thought about it before – through my experience.

So, maybe most of my serious writing happens when I have to, but my inspiration of what I do write is summed up by Didion pretty well when she says, “The picture tells you how to arrange the words…It tells you. You don’t tell it.”

Communicating

We’re constantly in communication.  Sure, it’s a cliché that we live in a fast-paced world where instant communication is necessary, but that doesn’t take away from its truth: we love to communicate with each other.  Really, we always have had a desire to communicate, but have lacked the tools to do so constantly.  Today, twitter, facebook, and even online message boards give us the instant communication generations before us never had (I actually just tweeted mid-paper).  We are constantly criticized for lacking patience, or proving deficient in personal interactions, but maybe we just love to write.  Communication through writing used to be reserved only for well thought-out research papers.  Now, writing is everywhere.

In Andrew Sullivan’s blog post “Why I Blog”, he describes why blogs have become so popular.  They offer a unique opportunity to see the writer in their raw form, without much revision.  Blog posts have the ability to encapsulate exactly what the writer was thinking at the moment they posted their material, and give us a way of seeing how ideas may have developed or been destroyed.  This raw form of communication, while dangerous, is what makes blogs so worthwhile.  Readers can see the author in their most vulnerable form, and then interact with the author through a comment section.   It’s a conversation, only through writing.

Even before the internet (apparently the internet hasn’t ALWAYS existed—who knew?), writing was a major form of communication.  George Orwell discusses this in his piece “Why I Write,” as he explains that two reasons for writing are “historical impulse” and “political purpose.”  He knew why people write: to feel relevant; to feel like they can make people see the world exactly as they see it.  Writers want to influence others through their words.  Orwell had to take time to write out an elaborate essay, then get it published.  Sullivan only has to hit “submit” on a website.  Yet both are communicating through writing.

Still, as Orwell later points out, writing is not all about influencing others.  Sometimes writing is entirely introspective.  As we see through Joan Didion’s aptly titled “How I Write” essay, writing can serve the purpose of self-communication.   All of her writing begins with two pictures that “tell [her]” what to write.  She sees the world differently than others do, and can only explain it through writing.  To outsiders, it may seem as if she is writing to make some kind of commentary, or to impress readers.  Really, she is writing to understand herself.

Whether I am writing to understand myself, or writing for others, this desire for communication is mostly the reason I write.  I desire for others to hear me; I want them to understand my thoughts and my feelings; I want them to communicate with me.  Still, I sometimes struggle to effectively communicate with my audience.  They’re there, but it’s tough to figure out exactly what to say to impress them.

Michael Patrick Welch embodies the type of writing I desire.  His essay, “As if Hell Were a Real Place” is set up as a conversation with the reader, and he is constantly vulnerable and open to different experiences.  He opens up his life for the reader, and through this, is able to influence the reader’s own opinions.  Throughout the essay, I felt as if he is one of my good friends, sitting down and reciting a story about his unfortunate life.  I keep wanting to hear more; I wanted to know exactly how his life turns out.  This is the kind of communication I desire to find through writing.

*Clever Title*

I would like to preface my first blog post with this: I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.  We’ve been thrown into this blog with what I feel is an “intentional uncertainty.”  All of us are supposed to make the blog what we want it to be.  And that lack of direction seems a bit daunting right now …

I’ll begin by talking about Orwell’s piece.  The thing that resonated the most with me is his quote that talked about the, “…emotional attitude from which [we] will never completely escape.”  When we discussed this in class, I raised my hand and began to fight for the idea that I have indeed “changed”.  I felt very strongly about this at the time; I wanted to believe that I am at a different emotional level than the five-year old version of myself that once enjoyed running around in his underwear while banging a cooking pot with a metal spoon.  I wanted to believe that I have a different emotional attitude than the ignorant middle school version of myself that was convinced his parents didn’t understand him. I really wanted to believe that I have changed.

But I thought about our discussion as my day progressed, and I realized that maybe I haven’t changed.  This is not to say that I enjoy running around the Graduate library half-naked on the weekend.  And I now consider my parents to be two of my very best friends on earth. The “change” that confused me earlier is my maturity, or my ability to know how to behave and think in my ever-changing contexts.  People change contexts as they grow and mature and this is indeed change.  However, I think that my innate emotional core has not changed.

On to Didion.  The thing that stood out the most to me about this piece is her very last sentence.  She writes, “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”  What is awesome about this quote is that I couldn’t agree with it more.  Over the past year or so I have finally begun to realize what writing means to me.  I enjoy writing because it allows me to understand the thoughts that are in my head by turning them into a tangible form.  Whenever I don’t know the answer to something, I write.  I make a brainstorm, I make an outline, and then I write so I can attempt to articulate my views/opinions.  Writing is so much more than telling your side of the story.  It’s deciding what your side of the story is.  I think that “Writing,” and “English,” and “literature” should not define writing classes.  Instead, they should be labeled “thinking” classes.

Another thing from Didion that I sincerely enjoyed was when she said, “…when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.  In short I tried to think.  I failed.”  This is just great.  So often I feel that my thoughts are insane or too abstract to be understood by others (let alone myself).  And Didion describes this “thinking” process so well by talking about a “world of ideas” that presumably only the intellectual elites like Orwell and Didion reside.

This all brings me to the piece of writing I am going to bring in to class (or brought, depending on when you read this).  It’s quite short, actually. Ernest Hemmingway once composed a story in merely six words.  He stated, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  This speaks to the Orwell and Didion pieces because it demonstrates that meaningfulness is not correlated with the “length” of the writing. Hemmingway did it in six words and arguably had just as big of an impact. Orwell and Didion spoke about how writing allows them to figure out and express their ideas (in what seemed to be a long process).  Orwell even stated that, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  Obviously Hemmingway did write much longer pieces, but I find the power of these six words to be interesting.

Years ago, though, when I read this Hemmingway piece for the first time, I was angry that it was considered a “short story.”  It’s six words for crying out loud.  But what Hemmingway’s story now represents to me is what good writing has the ability to do.  It can start a conversation, inspire a class, and cause fools like myself to dwell/fixate on the sentences on a page.  Didion would agree with me (and hopefully Orwell, too) as she proclaimed, “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.”  It’s as if the picture in my mind is that of the pre-thought, or the innate ideas I inherently hold. My “truth.” And the arrangement of words I choose are those that I hope can articulate this picture.

Hemmingway’s piece of writing is something I want to emulate because of its ability to paint this picture.  It also has the same “intentional uncertainty” that I used to describe this very blog at the beginning of my post.  It is this ambiguity, this deliberate order of words that has such a vague (yet distinct) meaning, that I would like to one day be able to emulate in my writing.

 

Rethinking reasons for writing

I think it is safe to say that when we think about writers, we are likely to assume that writers are people who are able to articulate their thoughts on paper with ease. Yet, what Orwell and Didion have to say about their writing process seem to share the common message that they don’t always know what exactly to write and how to write it. Orwell admits to being prone to include long-winded descriptions only because he wants to. Didion shares that she finds herself adding unexpected details when she writes, making it seem as though writing leads her to find her own thoughts.

Orwell touches on how the political climate of his time has sparked in him the desire to express his opinions about the turmoil he has seen in his surroundings. This is an aspect that we can see has endured through time. Current events influence writers’ opinions which in turn inform a greater public that may or may not share the same viewpoints. This point is salient in Sullivan’s explanation as to why he blogs. Sullivan feels the urge to not just provide commentary, but also initiate active discussion with his blog readers about what is happening right now. Crucial to his purpose of writing are the relevance of the topics he writes about and the immediacy with which he can address and receive feedback about these topics.

Orwell’s opinion that one of the motivations that push writers to write is “political purpose” is echoed by Joan Didion’s assertion that “writing is the act of … imposing oneself upon other people …” When a person writes for an audience, it is only inevitable that anticipating the audience’s opinions and reactions is as important as relaying the writer’s own opinions and claims. Without keeping in mind the inherent connection between a writer and a reader, a piece of writing will only hold personal significance to the writer. This leans toward what Orwell describes as writing to fulfill a “historical purpose” and an “aesthetic enthusiasm”.

I chose Maus I, the black and white comic book by Art Spiegelman, to represent a work that I found very compelling. This book was written and illustrated to depict the very dark lives that many people lived under the Nazi rule. Yet, Spiegelman managed to make it a fascinating read by weaving together his political and artistic purposes. He effectively used the connection between visual art and words.

He drew symbolically by depicting the Nazi soldiers as cats (which were often colored in with dark, bold lines) and the oppressed people as mice (which were always given white faces). Spiegelman also used the written language to evoke emotional responses in his readers. The dialogues throughout the comic shifted in tone and slang. He showed a contrast between the old man (the narrator) who had witnessed and lived through the dark times and the grandchild who was piecing together his grandfather’s story to create this comic. It was clear the Spiegelman didn’t just want to chronicle his grandfather’s account of his times, but he also wanted to bring life to that story by showing it in an engaging blend of pictures and words. As Orwell would put it, Spiegelman’s work was a result of both historical and political purpose.

The other piece of writing that I have chosen, Mirrorings by Lucy Grealy, brings readers through a turbulent emotional journey that the author experiences as a result of living with a face damaged by surgery. She provides intimate details and vivid descriptions that make her voice come through the pages. At the same time, Grealy isn’t just telling her story. She is also, as Didion may put it, imposing her views on her readers. She is giving them a perspective unlike what most of them hold. She wants them to see the world the way that she does as an adult who has lived a life full of blatant scrutiny and disapproval due to her disfigured face. By using her own life story, she wants her readers to examine the way in which they perceive beauty and perhaps alter their perceptions.

Writing: “It’s Serious Business”

When I think of writing, an image of a lonely figure, sitting under a dim light, scribbling his or her thoughts deep into the night comes to mind. A writer is a literary artist. A writer perfects his or her art through constant practice and honing of their skill. A writer writes because they are good at it.

After reading Orwell’s and Didion’s essays “Why I Write”, I began to have different ideas of how a writer is portrayed to myself as well as to others. Didion began her essay with introducing the fact that writing is an “aggressive, even hostile act.” She points out that no matter how a writer may sugar-coat their words, writing is the act of putting opinions to paper, with the hopes of changing the opinions of others. “The pen is mightier than the sword” has never rang more true to me. When people think of writing, they think of it as a passive thing, almost as normal as breathing or eating. It’s simply something you do to record your ideas or thoughts. Yet, the implications that come with displaying your writing to others can create strong responses, whether they’re positive or negative. Writing is a conscious decision to act, and the writer is the medium through which it’s expressed.

The example of writing that I will bring to class is the book “The Giver”. It is a children’s novel, easily read by any fifth grader. Yet, the implications that come with the story are immense, questioning the line between socialism/totalitarianism and the right of the government to protect its citizens. Lois Lowry dedicated the book “To all the children, to whom we entrust the future”. She wrote with a specific message in mind and forcefully introduced her point of view. Although the book has elicited good and bad responses, the novel has received many literary awards for it’s style and daring topic.

Orwell mentioned that “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’.” In his essay, he mentions how all of his essays, articles and books were failures. And all future literary pieces will be as well. Yet, Orwell knew that he’s a writer, whether good or bad. He didn’t question the reasons he wrote, he wrote because he knew there was a reason. What resonated most with me was that  the motives for writing are different for each individual, but they all write because they are driven by a force: They want to be heard.

The image of a writer changed slightly for me after reading these articles. A writer is a writer, not matter how or why they write. A writer is only as good or bad as they think they are.

Anyone can write.

Why They Write…and Blog

At the beginning of her piece entitled “Why I Write,” Joan Didion explains her decision to name the piece after a George Orwell essay. She writes “I like the sound of the words…I, I, I. In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it in my mind, change your mind.” This may be an aggressive answer to the question of why one writes, but it does directly provide an answer: we write to express ourselves, explain why we believe that way, and possibly get others to agree with you. Sometimes a piece does one of the three and other times it does all of the above.

I like to think that a lot of writing allows a writer to share with the audience what he or she is thinking. However, Ms. Didion interestingly explains  that she writes to “find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” This is quite profound. Not only do we write to express our thoughts, but we also write to figure out what we’re thinking, find answers, and make sense of it all.

In the original “Why I Write” piece, George Orwell defines the 4 reasons for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Before reading this essay, I had a good grasp on reasons number 2, 3, and 4, and I found it interesting to see the “sheer egoism” argument. This motive for writing may bring about writers simply producing outlandish content to garner attention, yet it may also give an author rationale and reward to take risks. Also in the essay, Mr. Orwell tells the reader he writes to reveal injustice and expose a lie. This is a fascinating starting point that does not always come to my mind when I write, yet rings true for many writers today. Many websites today exist entirely to debunk myths and show people’s lies–Mr. Orwell was ahead of the game.

Much of what Andrew Sullivan writes in his piece “Why I Blog” resonated with me. Mr. Sullivan effectively breaks down the goals of blogging and keys to successful online publishing. He asserts that the best blogs reveal an “unfinished tone.” This may run contrary to conventional wisdom, but some of the best blogs put out posts that may otherwise seem in the draft phase. In blogging, however, it is these types of pieces that authors don’t think too hard about that generate the best content. Mr. Sullivan sees this style as a reflection of the “imperfection of human thought” and something worth embracing. Above all, Mr. Sullivan argues that bloggers must show “a willingness to fall off the trapeze rather than fail to make the leap.” The online community rewards risks and authors who take chances. In one of his many great analogies, Mr. Sullivan compares blogging to extreme sports in the high potential for failure yet the more alive results it can produce. Writers should let go of their writing. They may find it to be a freeing experience.

This tactic comes with consequences, both positive and negative. It means that the readers can hold the authors accountable to their writing and arguments. The danger remains that the desire to be more informal may lead to unfinished, inaccurate pieces. Traditional forms of publication took a while to produce. Now, blogs are instant. Editors no longer set deadlines for the end of the week: the deadline is now. The internet rewards brevity and immediacy. Matt Drudge looks at blogging as a broadcast rather than a publication–it needs to constantly keep moving. With the shortened time frame and the new technological advancements, readers can also engage more with authors. It no longer takes days or weeks for writer to respond to a reader’s feedback. It can be done within hours or even minutes of the suggestion, critique, or challenge. This new discussion format allows for the writer and his or her readers to develop a relationship–Mr. Sullivan even went so far as to call it a friendship. He lived through 9/11, the Iraq war, and other major events of the past decade with his readers and engaged with them online–something not possible before the age of the internet.

I brought in two essays that likely fall under Mr. Orwell’s final category: political purpose. If Ms. Didion were to read them, she would likely say that I’m trying too hard to put myself at the center of the argument. This will be something worth noting during the revision cycle. I chose these pieces because they show aspects of my writing that I believe are my strengths: an authoritative tone willing to engage in discussion and acknowledging the other side. I think these essays also show my thought process. They show that I didn’t feel this way always, but rather came to these conclusions after thinking long and hard about the topic and finding answers through writing. When I’m writing essays, I at times suffer from writer’s block. I think I should better take Mr. Sullivan’s suggestion to let go of my writing–not worry so much about the aesthetics and focus on the substance. I love engaging in discussion with my classmates. I would like to see some of these pieces transform into blog posts that allow for a better forum for dialogue and interaction with the reader.

Overall, each of these three pieces opened my eyes to the many reasons people write. I hope to apply the suggestions of the authors to my own writing for future assignments.