…Words are powerful. Language changes lives. The letters of the alphabet give me identity, purpose, dreams and often happiness (or is it happyness?). I wholeheartedly pursue relationships through communication. I love with words. I hurt with words. I remember not with just crinkled images and faded pictures, but with narration to tell the story…

All these thoughts streamed through my head while reading the motives behind why some guy named Big Brother, I mean George Orwell, wrote. He says, “When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words.” Sure, I have lists upon lists of my favorite words: wasps, banana, radii, squash, Trigonometry. But why write? Why continually place yourself in moments of vulnerability and exposure? Well Mr. Orwell, I’m glad you brought this up.

To write is to risk yourself – a broken daughter, a failing sister – for all to see. “And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane,” Orwell says. Telling my perception of the story and entering the conversation is revealing. I feel that writing is as raw of an act that there can be. It’s abstract thought turned into artifacts you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Andrew Sullivan agrees in a different sphere, saying, “To blog is therefore to let go of your writing in a way, to hold it at arm’s length, open it to scrutiny, allow it to float in the ether for a while, and to let others, as Montaigne did, pivot you toward relative truth.” Truth is raw.

I’m also a collector of so-called “lines” – the phrases or language combinations that are able to be both written and spoken with conviction. It’s as if I want to mental archive all of my Aha! moments with words. But for the first time, I had an Aha! moment by way of disagreement. Sullivan says, “Words, of all sorts, have never seemed so now.” Really, blogger Andrew? Words have never gone out of style. Words have never flown south for the decade. Words will never not be powerful. It’s the people that we have to get to listen to them.

Response to Why I Write readings

Wow. After reading a phrase like “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another,” how can you not fall in love with the rhythm of a good sentence sentence, the beauty of words, or even just with George Orwell himself? That one phrase not only gave me a (perhaps too literal, but nonetheless effective) mental image of alphabet sounds body-slamming one another in the margins of a page, but it also spoke to that little jolt of pleasure I always get when I read a certain sentence or phrase that just works. Like a nugget of poetry within standard prose. Orwell’s later discussion of writing as a political and public act definitely resonated with me, although I feel like in today’s age there is a lot of writing out there that focuses on the personal rather than the political. Sure, it is impossible to write in a completely isolated vacuum; a writer has a past connected to others, lives in the contemporary world, has had certain experiences. But with the modern concept of blogs as a form of instant personal expression, (maybe even personal “word vomit”?) would Orwell be disappointed in today’s intrapersonal writers for our shortage of political drive? Do we lack sufficient Animal Farm’s in the blogosphere? Or are the fiery rants on sites like certain Tea Party blogs equally potent? I wonder what Orwell would be writing about if he lived in today’s world with us…

One thing I know Orwell would recognize as a universal mainstay with writers both then and now is the idea of writing as egoism. Joan Didion’s recognition of the inherent “I” sound in the phrase “why I write” humorously speaks to the idea of writing as an act of our own egos. Of course we write selfishly…writing is a form of self-expression begging to be seen/read/heard! Whether it’s a quirky tweet, an argumentative essay, or a letter to the editor—writing seems to me first and foremost a way for us to express ourselves and our own views to someone else. So what if that seems “imposing,” “aggressive” or even “hostile” as Didion recognizes? Humans, well at least all of the humans I know, sometimes need to use words in a selfish way to communicate effectively. Yes, I know in an academic paper you are supposed to take out all of the “I”s (which sometimes leads to funky stuff like “Therefore, one could say…”), but isn’t the “I” always implied? Well, here’s to hoping for some good, selfish writing this semester!

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.

Why I Write – 9/8/11

I found both perspectives of “Why I Write” touched home with me, yet in different ways. George Orwell mentions that he started to write because he was lonely as a child and would make up stories. Although as a child I was lucky enough to never feel particularly “alone,” I spent the greater majority of my childhood making up interesting stories. Even as a young child I always was looking to entertain. I wanted to be the center of attention and in order to do so, I always had something interesting to share with my “audience.” Both Orwell and Didion mention having a way with words and enjoying the way they sound when strung together in a specific way. This is something that I first felt with the spoken word. It was only as I matured that I began to realize that I found even more enjoyment with the written word. Orwell mentions “four great motives for writing,” which he believes that every writer has to some degree. I agree with the first three at face value the way he describes them, but the way Orwell describes the fourth motive, Political Purpose, stood out to me. It is important to point out that the “politics” Orwell speaks of are not just politics in the sense of government, the way we would normally or instinctively think of politics, but the whole politics of society. People write to share and most times persuade people to understand their view points and opinions. If I think of politics in this way, I believe this is my main motive for why I write.

So What’s the Role of A Writer?

Orwell and Didion seem to agree that a writer must have a certain confidence, or maybe even arrogance that makes them believe that what they have to say is worth the time of others, and that it deserves recognition. The “I” is being imposed upon the reader, and with it, a perspective and a message. The writer is egotistical, self-centered and vain, and is really only publishing his or her work for attention.

Despite this recognition of the seemingly bossy and assertive “I” that writers impose, Orwell and Didion seem to think that there are circumstances in the world that require the commentary of the writer—circumstances whose affects might not be immediately evident to all of society, and that need to be discussed, analyzed and criticized. Having a political purpose and an historical impulse, as Orwell notes, seem to be the driving force of the writer in these scenarios.

So if we push selfish tendencies aside, what should the motivations of a good writer be? It seems as though Didion would agree that a brilliant piece of writing is not the result of personal commentary of a writer. Her perspective on the role of the writer resonates with me when she discusses imagery: “The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture…It tells you. You don’t tell it.” Intense observation of detail is something that I think makes a good writer, and allowing for a situation or an event or an object to speak for itself. This is what it seems Didion is saying.

Writers are, in a sense, the medium through which the lifeless and the mute reveal their story. They are listeners and observers before they are writers. They may have motives that aren’t entirely benevolent—as all humans do. What distinguishes their work, however, is what they want it to ultimately accomplish, and the different voices and perspectives they invoke to reveal that truth.

Why I Write, 9/8

I enjoyed reading both Orwell and Didion’s pieces for I thought that they delivered honesty into their pieces.  We all, as writers, know why we write: pleasure, requirement, communication. Not everyone enjoys writing academically but at some point, we all do enjoy writing something for someone else.

One was of Didion showing her honesty was through her personal opinion of writing being the way she delivers her thoughts. When she writes, she wants others to believe what she is saying and go along with what she believes.  Didion states, “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.”  I believe that many writers would not admit to such a statement for this honesty can make the audience second guess what the writer is saying. While reading a piece, you don’t want doubt to be in the back of the mind’s of anyone who is reading, but rather you want them to go along with you and understand you. Didion pointing out that she wants to change your mind opens up the audience to realizing her honesty.

Orwell proved his honesty as writer but not in the same was as Didion.  Orwell believes that, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” What a bold statement to make. However, he is partially true. Writers can become very selfish, seeing as one of their motives to write is to get everyone to see something the way they see it. They are not always the most open-minded of scholars, for if they try to argue more than one point or position, their opinion can often get lost on the paper, computer screen, print out, etc.

Honesty is the part I like about writing the most. I feel that I can be the most honest while writing more than any other time in my life. Whether it’s writing a little thank you note to my mother, a course evaluation for a class that went wrong, or a constitution for my club at school, it’s the way that I can express myself easiest and be honest with what I want to say.

That’s the beauty of writing: you can say what you wish to say.

Why Do I Write??

After reading the two pieces and only partially identifying with either one on their reasons for writing, the question “Why do I write?” was forefront in my mind. I was turned off by a fact mentioned in both pieces, that writing was at the very core, a  selfish act.  Immediately after reading that, I put up a wall. Of course that didn’t apply to me; I want to do science writing, bring research to a lay audience. Not long after, it dawned on me that despite noble intentions, I wanted to do this because I think of myself as a decent writer, or that I can say it better than the next guy… not so noble. As I tried to appease my science-oriented mind by pinpointing specific characteristics I think make me a decent writer, I caught myself doing something also mentioned in both articles: introspection.

I have never considered myself particularly introspective. In fact, I harbor a sort of disdain for others that I see have that Freudian aspect. Both Orwell and Didion mentioned a “diary that existed only in the mind” and “writing entirely to find out what’s in my own mind,” respectively. Again, something I found myself unable to relate to and back at the core question of why do I write? Along that same vein, Orwell’s mind diary reference did strike a chord with me.

Many times a day I will catch myself doing exactly as both Orwell and Didion described, narrating scenes with intense detail. Sometimes I do it out of sheer boredom, other times I just like the sound of the words and the narrative in my head. Still other times, I place myself in the narration as a character in the hopes that my mind narration will lead to a meet-cute and my life will transform into a romantic comedy. So far, only the comedy has come to fruition.

On a final note, I guess what I took away the most from these pieces (Orwell’s in particular) is that you need to write for a purpose. Orwell is famous for his later work, the politically oriented writing. He wrote that he switched to this kind of writing after a significant life event when he knew where he stood ideologically. This made me think again what my motivations are for writing. I have had no significant life events that would sway me in any one direction for any profession. As Didion mentioned her deep fascination with other people: who they were, how they ended up where they were that day, why they were doing what they were doing; the same questions stampede through my mind a thousand times a day. It’s like an oncologist chooses that profession because his mom died of cancer. I don’t have any deep, personal motivation for writing and I don’ t know that I necessarily need a profound experience to make myself legitimate, but I do feel as though it would be easier to justify to myself.


Six-Year-Olds Can’t Comprehend Hemingway

Re-reading over both Orwell and Didion’s well-known essays “Why I Write”, I was struck by a sort of despair.  Both Orwell, who believes that the act of writing about oneself at once concerns the wider public, and Didion, who insists that writers are writers because they “do not think in abstracts”, bring up genius ways of looking at the question, and I don’t dream of challenging their opinion that writing is inherently self-centered because it is as close to fact as opinion can be.  I was struck with despair because all the while I was reading I was disappointed that such greats had chosen to answer that question.  Because when it comes down to it, “Why do you write?” is a presumptuous question.  It yearns to be answered coldly, disdainfully – “because I like to” – and left at that.

Surely, I felt, “why I write” is a question beneath the dignity of answering.  And then I stopped mid-grumble because I realized that my snappish answer of “because I like to” would not only be uncharitable but untrue.  That is when I realized I couldn’t seriously answer the question, and that is where the despair came in.  But the more I think about that question (which is, after all, still foolish), the more I think it doesn’t matter to me why I write.  At least not yet.  To me, the pertinent question is not “Why do I write?” but, “Am I writing, and if not, why not?”.

This is a more telling statement than I’d like to admit.  Simply put, it means I haven’t had the time to work out why I write.  This confession may make some people consider me lazy and ill-motivated.  But some things in life can’t be sought out, and life-experience is one of these things.  To answer now with certainty the question of why I write would produce results as laughable as a six-year-old explaining Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  That’s just the problem with being young, and being in school.  You haven’t had time to become self-centered in an introspective, proportioned sort of way.  And in any case, by virtue of being in school any of this writerly brand of introspectiveness you may have gained in your short years is promptly labeled “beside the point” and beaten out of you.  Sure, you are taught to think critically and to solve problems, but the manner of introspectiveness that I am talking about can only come when you are somewhere remote from everything, either physically or emotionally, after a long bout of experience.

Or so I’ve been told, by a number of credible and greying people who also happen to write.  Not having had vast amounts of experience at writing – real writing, not what Orwell calls “the made-to-order stuff” – I suppose I must content myself with the more immediate needs of becoming good at writing: paper, pen, and a good stack of writing by older, experienced writers.

Response to Orwell’s “Why I Write”

After reading George Orwell’s “Why I Write” I find that I am able to relate to many of his ideas; at the same time, however, I am not able to relate to many of the motives that Orwell lists for him becoming a writer.  The first idea that I was able to relate to was writing pieces that are “made-to-order.”  As a college student, I find that the majority of my writing is done based on a given prompt or assignment—there is very little flexibility in the level of my own creativity if I want a satisfactory grade.  It is this lack of flexibility that makes my writing feel “made-to-order,” as Orwell describes.

Along with understanding Orwell’s discussion of producing colloquial and subsequently uncreative writing, Orwell’s love of words also resonates with me.  One of my favorite parts of writing is using new words.  I often structure sentences around single words or a string of words that, to me, has a certain flow or sound.  While I do not change the spelling of words or make words up as Orwell often does, I can relate to the “joy of mere words” which Orwell expresses in his essay.

While I am no way a writer in the same category as Orwell and I have never written a novel, it is hard for me to imagine that all writers are “driven on by some demon.”  While there are definitely those who may be prompted to write due to an inner demon, it seems to me that Orwell is making a generalization when he makes this claim.  Why can’t people write because it is fun?  After reading this essay and realizing that the majority of my own writing is “made-to-order,” I am left hoping that, unlike Orwell, I will continue to write not because I feel I have to, but because I want to.