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.

3 thoughts to “Rethinking reasons for writing”

  1. The idea that writers write to push their political purpose is an interesting one. We don’t always think of great writers as politicians, but a lot of the great writing in the past has been political (Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, even the federalist papers written by James Madison). It’s cool that Orwell mentioned this as a reason for writing, and that you found a piece that also pushed political ideas.

    I’m interested in how Spiegelman works to push his political agenda in Maus I. I just finished taking English 325, where we read a lot of essays that told personal stories in a way that also made a commentary on some part of life. Hopefully Spiegelman does a similar job in pushing his ideas through a compelling story.

  2. I was kind of afraid to keep reading when I read that you choose Maus I as your writing piece. I read that book in high school because I accidentally bought it for the wrong class. Nevertheless, I didn’t really understand that book and understand why its topic was so political. I was uncomfortable, actually because I knew this book was not going to be a pleasant stroll in the park. However, you made a good point. Writing has so many purposes and can be very effective way of expressing your values and opinions. And relating that back to my experience, writing is interesting in the aspect that only those who want to read it can read it and study it. In other words, writing is a source of voluntary sharing of ideas and viewpoints. I noticed that although in your blog post, you talk about other authors having political viewpoint, your post is ironically very unbiased and matter-of-fact. I’m hoping to see more of your political viewpoints and opinions as the semester goes on.

  3. Crystal,

    Isn’t it amazing when we see legimate writers, such as Orwell and Didion, confess that sometimes writing is actually not so easy? I’ve always found that the best writing (even when it does not cover the theme of writing itself) is honest, truthful writing.

    After I read your thoughts on Orwell, I was curious as to your personal opinion about writing while putting the readers’ perspective on some sort of pedestal, and keeping the motives he discusses in mind. Do you find that you write out of “sheer egoism” or do you write with a pen that is forever conscious of and obedient to your audience?

    Mirrorings by Lucy Grealy sounds like a really interesting story. What about her writing compelled you? Was it her ability to strike a chord with her readers? To shock them into a new understanding? Was the writing specific and scientific, or was it emotional?

    After reading about Maus I, I thought you might be interested in a graphic novel I recently read called “The Photographer” by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre, and Frederic Lemercier. It tells the story of a photojournalist who accompanied a Doctors Without Borders mission during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. It is comprised of both comics as well as real black-and-white photographs. It is graphic in all senses of the word, as it shows the damage done to bodies and souls alike by the war. I think there is something inherently powerful in using graphical representations to tell a story; certainly, we can perceive historical and political impulses in these pieces that contribute a different, and many times more effective and striking, perspective.

    – Allie

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