On Metawriting: Orwell, Didion and Sullivan

I was required to read Orwell’s essay as a junior in high school in honors English, and I don’t remember much about he said, only that I enjoyed it. Now presented with the opportunity to refresh my memory and through more experienced eyes, I can better understand what Orwell was trying to get at with his piece. As a long-time fan of Orwell’s 1984, I found the fact that he did not consider himself a writer until later in his life even though he participated in “literary activities” quite surprising and uncomfortable. Where does a voice find itself if it does not get to begin developing upon learning of the English language early on in life? I found his honesty with the process as humbling, perhaps because I have put him on a pedestal of whom I consider to be a great writer, but also because it takes much courage to go out and be so self-critical of your own work in the middle of your writing career. Bashedly describing, “every book is a failure” about his own writing seems overcritical to me. How can he consider his books failures when they are praised the world over?

Orwell’s essay really pioneered metawriting, and I really enjoyed his motivations lists all writers possess, although I disagreed that all writing has political purpose. I never had considered my own writing to be tied to a political purpose. I write for classes or for my own personal benefit, not for a political purpose. However, I could see why he chose to put this on his list since much of his writing was very political as well as other writers of the time.

In Didion’s piece, I was confused by how she described herself as unable to think but able to write by saying, “I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer.” Writing takes a tremendous amount of thinking in order to mash words together into coherent sentences. Of course, putting thoughts to paper doesn’t necessarily equate to writing, but ultimately writing is what thinking becomes. Her way of describing this can’t think/can write epiphany didn’t seem right to me.

I absolutely loved the way she described the process of her writing, that the picture determines the arrangement of words. “It tells you, you don’t tell it,” she writes. I resonated with this because it made complete sense to me. I often find myself converting images into words with my writing, and the images help guide me through that process.

Of the three pieces, I found myself least relating to Sullivan’s blog piece. His description of blogging as a “spontaneous expression of instant thought” made the intimacy I experience with the private nature of my own writing invalid. His unique perspective of someone who has been blogging since its origins with the spread of the Internet allows me to understand his point of view and why he finds it so rewarding. Indeed, the personality and human brand that emerges from the art was little accessible before the days of the blog when people had to send manuscripts to editors in hopes of getting their work published. His ability to show how blogging connects voices, sparks debate and creates a space for instant thought and communication resonates well with me. He also is able to value the art of reading words on paper, and how a mix of digital and print media should coexist alongside each other instead of digital media completely destroying whatever writing we have left on paper. Also, I found his dissection of the word blog itself extremely interesting, since I never thought about it myself. It made me wonder of the origins of other words I take for granted, like Twitter and Instagram. Surely, they carry similar origin stories.

Overall, the three pieces shared a similar thread in that they take the voices of passionate writers and a blogger to say why they love what they do and what motivates them. It’s not just enough for them to practice what they do—writing, they need to write about writing too. While I don’t know if I’m at that quite of level of enthusiasm for the art, I can surely appreciate the points these authors so eloquently make.

Gabriella Ring

Gabriella is a junior majoring in International Studies. She has traveled abroad extensively and hopes to work in the cruise industry after graduation.

2 thoughts to “On Metawriting: Orwell, Didion and Sullivan”

  1. I liked your description of his honesty within the process. I agree with you that is is humbling as it humanizes him, who is often seen as such an authority on writing and almost untouchable. I liked that you discussed both Didion and Orwell and your description of writing being a manifestation of thinking. I thought that was a very interesting perspective on what writing is.

  2. Hi Gabriella,
    I also found Orwell’s hesitancy to consider himself a writer uncomfortable, but I also identify with his hesitancy. Even as I am in the Minor in Writing program, when I think about who I am “writer” usually isn’t very high on my list of adjectives (if the word even makes it on the list at all). Reader, certainly, is in the top ten. But writer? I’ve found that my voice as a writer tends to come from the same place where I developed an understanding of the English language, as you said. But the acknowledgement, cultivation, and refinement of this voice is a very recent process for me, and I think once I am farther along in the process it will be more natural to consider myself a writer. I think this is part of what Orwell was getting at: that cultivating one’s skill as a writer is part of actually becoming a writer. It is the same in the engineering college; my peers and I are not yet engineers proper, but engineers-in-training. In the same way, I am more comfortable considering myself a writer-in-training.

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