Finding the Reward in Writing

Whenever I am engaging in a conversation with someone and they ask what I am pursuing as a career, I simply state, “Well, I love writing.” They look at me for a while, waiting for me to explain further, before they ask, “So do you write novels or something?” I am taken aback when this is the response and I almost feel sorry for those who immediately associate being a writer with being the author of a novel.

While I know that you do not have to be in the same field or be the same type of thinker for a piece to speak to you, it certainly does help. I have never really thought of myself as a creative writer (as in writing fiction or prose) so I cannot relate entirely to George Orwell and Joan Didion’s “Why I Write” pieces respectively. I don’t think I have ever experienced seeing the glimmer, which Didion talks about, nor can I apply all of the motivations Orwell speaks about to my own life as a writer.

All that being said, I think that not identifying with a writer who came before you is truly the beauty of writing. As a writer, you are not confined to one style or format; you can try your hand at anything, as long as you posses some motivation. Of course there were instances when I was on the same page with Didion and Orwell, like Didion’s claim that the reason why writers write is to mull over questions in order to find answers. Likewise, I agreed with one of the motivations to write that Orwell talks about— sheer egoism. As a writer you want to seem clever and have a strong presence, not to mention who doesn’t love getting published?

The catch for me with sheer egoism is that Orwell claims that writers want to be talked about. While being talked about and making a (good) name for yourself as a writer does seem like a promising goal, I feel like if you want to lead readers to a certain conclusion, you have to be in conversation with them. This is why Andrew Sullivan’s essay “Why I blog” sticks with me more than the others; the emphasis isn’t just about getting your own point across, it’s about collaboration.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been one to sit down and start writing the plot of an original novel; however, I have always kept a journal. While some of the things I write are personal, I sometimes catch myself wondering if people would care to hear what I am writing. This is, as Sullivan states, what blogging is: “[Blogging] transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one. It combines the confessional genre with the log form and exposes the author in a manner no author has ever been exposed before.”

It might sound odd, but I love this idea of being exposed and being the truest form of myself. I think that, as a writer, it speaks volumes if you allow yourself to reach the extent of vulnerability that blogging entails. I understand that there is still vulnerability in writing a novel, but you are not presenting yourself and your raw ideas openly for (potential) public ridicule; instead, you can take shelter behind your characters and plot. With blogging, you break down the barricade and welcome the readers into your own personal life. Sullivan summarizes this point well, 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.” So rather than thinking of writing as an individual act, blogging transformed writing into a collaborative production. Writers who blog look to others to aid them, provide their own insight, and bring other sources to the table. And in my novice writing eyes, that’s what it’s all about— having a rewarding conversation.

On the resonance of Orwell and Sullivan

Maybe I myself am generalizing out of my own sense of ego — that same ego that drives George Orwell and so many self-reflective writers — but it seems to me that all writers must confront the question: why do I write? More often, I ask myself how the hell am I going to turn writing, I mean writing in its purest, pen-to-paper or fingers-to-keys sense, into a sustainable career? I’m sure we all do.

What Orwell tells us is, like Nike, we’ll just do it. He argues that writing is not motivated by money or a job or even for public service. It is inherently selfish in nature, so selfish that this burning desire can often overwhelm the person itself — the need to write is so much so that it may, after all, hinder more economically fruitful job opportunities that have nothing to do with prose. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness,” he says, warning us that this is not going to be fun. His honesty resonates as both daunting and comforting at the same time. I know now that I am not alone, up at night tossing and turning over my writing.

This is my first blog post ever.

So when Sullivan says, “unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory,” I am immediately drawn to the form. As a sports writer for the Michigan Daily, I have been subjected first and foremost to AP style guides — the Oxford comma, the long dash and the use of “just” to indicate a few and “only” for one. Furthermore each and every article I have written, from a game story to a profile or column, has been put through the meat grinder that is three (four at times) rounds of edits that exceed simple comma and spelling changes. For the ego-driven writer, this process was most painful with my first few articles but still stings each time. Why would I subject myself to that, too? Ask Orwell.

Like Sullivan says, journalism is extremely porous. In sports journalism, specifically I’ve seen a column written as a letter to Denard Robinson, a game preview written as a Christmas song and features that have made me cry. The wiggle room within journalism for creativity is truly what you make it, which is something I am fond of. However, blogs, like Sullivan argues, give the author the power to simply think and say without the rounds of edits that are associated with journalistic writing. He says that blogs still hold their writers to the same responsibility as journalists, by virtue of the internet and the freedom possessed by those commenting. What’s more, blogging allows action and reaction — for a writer to see or hear something and to respond without having to back up a claim with anything more than thoughts and feelings.

I think his most outstanding line is: “No columnist or reporter or novelist will have his minute shifts or constant small contradictions exposed as mercilessly as a blogger’s are.” Well, I guess now I’ll just go cry myself to sleep. He’s right. Journalists are also fact checking and using the politically correct terms to describe scenes without emotion or bias. When I sit atop Yost Ice Arena, I don’t get to write about my clenching fists as the Michigan hockey team skates towards its opponent in overtime.

I hope that blogging will help me to unleash the inner mystery that lies within my writing, for me to be able to write about the penalty shot or the big fight through my eyes and words, and not those of the AP style guide.

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.

Why Do I Write?

Before reading George Orwell’s and John Didion’s “Why I Write”, I had never questioned my motivations for choosing to write. Often I am writing in order to fulfill a class required assignment which I would never have been writing if it weren’t for the assignment. Sometimes I write out of boredom and because I have nothing better to do, but this rarely happens since I am regularly preoccupied with work, school, and extra curricular activities. There are sometimes when I write because I am trying to clarify something in my head and I am writing simply to get ideas out of my head and onto paper in a logical manner. Even more rare are the times when I write for pleasure simply because I feel passionate about expressing an idea that I have or expressing an idea that I find interesting. I often feel apprehensive to write because I feel as though I will not be able to thoroughly describe what I am trying to explain and instead become more frustrated in the process. That is partly the reason for taking this course, because I want to learn how to more accurately and efficiently express myself in writing, because I feel that is a useful skill to have.

I related to George Orwell’s belief regarding the motives that encourage writers to write. The idea that writers write simply to fulfill their ego and use writing as a platform to express their hard held opinions and beliefs is a motive that I similarly hold. Writers “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death…” (Orwell) and use writing as a way to convince the world that their words and ideas matter. This is often the case when I write and something that I want to work on. Didion echoes this claim in his essay in which he states that he also believes writers are writing as a way to gain public praise. The act of writing is inherently a selfish act in which the writer believes his opinion, thoughts, and ideas are worthy of being listened to and honored. “In many ways writing is the act of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” (Didion)

Through the course of this class I hope my writing style matures and instead of writing to receive personal praise, and instead learn to think, process, extract meaning, and explain thoroughly my thoughts and opinions and improve my overall writing style.

 

Orwell and Didion Response

What resonated with me most about the two articles is how Orwell and Didion both describe writing as something they need to do, rather than something they want to do.  I understood both authors to be arguing that writing became a compulsion for them, rather than a passion.

In some ways I agree with their point of view.  Writing is the way in which I best express myself and, like Didion, putting pen to paper is often how I create a sense of clarity out of the chaos around me.  Furthermore, in relation to Orwell’s four motives for writing, I know that writing is the best way I am able to make my mark on the world (although I hope this doesn’t fall entirely into the category of “sheer egoism”).  In short, I do not know who I would be if I didn’t write.

However, it is Orwell and Didion’s apparent lack of desire for the act of writing that I do not understand.  I have always associated writing, both my own and that of professionals, as an art driven by passion, a point of view which Orwell, especially, negates quite bluntly several times throughout his “Why I Write” essay.  It makes me uncomfortable to think that some of my favorite pieces of writing may not have been written because the author truly enjoys bringing entertaining stories to readers, but rather were created solely in the author’s self interests.

“Why I Write” – A Response to Orwell and Didion

What first strikes me about both pieces is how Orwell and Didion write so unabashedly about the egoism that has fueled their lives’ work. I admire these statements, mainly because I have yet to sum up the courage to admit the same to myself. It’s that need to permanently record your viewpoints, unsatisfied with merely thinking about them and with the hopes that they will be projected onto others, that keeps them writing. Furthermore, neither Orwell nor Didion liken that “need” to something inspiring or uplifting, but rather refer to it, respectively, as a “demon” and “secret bully.” These phrases suggest that the internal urge to write may, deep down, stem from somewhere intrinsically dark, and often we may not know it. I’ve always thought that I like to write because I thrive on creative expression and enjoy sharing my thoughts with the world. But perhaps, like Orwell and Didion allude to, this outward, surface-level “need” is just a disguised form of ultimately uncontrollable egoism. I don’t think I fully agree, but I think whatever propels my writing, it involves an honest search for what makes me put my thoughts to paper.

The purely aesthetic aspect of writing that both authors mention really resonates with me as well. When Didion speaks about being captivated by the physical world: sights she saw, “shimmering” images that stuck with her, it’s the pure imagery that shapes her writing, the desire to write something down because it evokes beauty, or even just because it sounds good. Reading this, I thought of some of the best moments I’ve had writing, and how often they arise from a vivid memory to which I can return, see, smell, and touch. I relate to Orwell’s recollection of his teenage writing, overflowing with flowering language and lush descriptions, and how, although that style became tiresome, it was a necessary phase of experimentation to become acquainted with the beauty of language.

Finally, I appreciated the last motive for writing that Orwell mentions, that of political purpose. He is careful to clarify that his use of the word “political” is in the broadest sense, essentially meaning to somehow alter the way people think. I think this point is a key not only to understanding the reasons why we write, but also to figuring out the ways in which we can write better. Orwell remarks, “I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly.” I firmly believe that identifying some shred of this political purpose, no matter is how obvious or obscured, is the first step in the direction of Orwell’s goal.

Why I Write, A Response

Though Didion’s piece and her prose resonated with me in a beautiful sort of way, the inspiration and reasoning behind her writing is not similar to mine in many aspects. Considering that my background is specifically in politics, this part of Orwell’s piece is very relevant to my own writing. He emphasizes that the time in which one lives and the politics behind those times, is what drives most writers and is seen through their words. I absolutely find this to be true with my own writing, and I find that the more passion I have for a topic, the better my writing seems to be. This is not to say that my writing always comes across as perfection when I am passionate. On the contrary, similar to Orwell, I find that it is often a delicate balance between who you are and what you wish to convey. You cannot let go of one or the other, otherwise your writing will resonate with no one. This is absolutely my constant struggle in my own writing, though Orwell puts the words more elegantly than I would have thought to.

At times, though his words are so familiar, Orwell’s comments about the laziness and egoism in authors makes me uncomfortable. Can I really fit into this generalization? I don’t want to but how avoidable is a trait that is unmistakably common in creators? Maybe this is something that will take more writing, thought, and purpose on my part. I think this is the major contradiction between the two pieces; Didion believes in the concrete and perceivable, while Orwell talks about generalizing writers, himself, and even atmosphere. This is where I draw the distinction in my own association with one writer rather than the other. But who knows? Maybe these two styles aren’t so different.

Orwell and Didion Response

In Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” two main things stuck out to me. First was his breakdown of the four great motives for writing. I definitely identified with the first two, “sheer egoism” and “aesthetic enthusiasm” over the latter two “historical impulse” and “political purpose”. While the term sheer egoism does not necessarily have the best connotation, I still agree with Orwell in that a good writer needs to be confident, believe in what they are writing, and be willing to take risks to stand out. I also love the term aesthetic enthusiasm. It’s such a perfect way to describe this idea of arranging every word with a purpose, and definitely something I strive for in my own work. The second part of Orwell’s essay that stuck out to me was the line, “In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it”. I find this to be so true when I look at old essays that I thought were my best work at the time. However, looking back at them they seem juvenile and lacking so many new techniques I’ve learned since writing them.

In Didion’s piece, also titled, “Why I Write” her last line, “had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel” really resonated with me. In high school I was so used to writing one dimensional papers in which I knew exactly what I was going to prove and how I was going to prove it before I even started. It was not until college that I was pushed to write essays in which you explore and search for answers with your audience, coming to new conclusions and understandings as the end result. Now that I have written papers like this I have a much better idea of what Didion means.

It’s Inevitable

As I read through Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay, I was confused by the title. He notes his inherent need to write since childhood – in fact, he made up descriptive stories in his head throughout his youth. I thought the essay was much more focused on the subject of his writing. He states that if he had grown up in a different time, his writing would be the cause of sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, and historical impulse. However, due to the political turmoil of the time, his writing is driven by political purpose, which in effect changes the content of the writing and makes this essay an exploration of why he chooses the topics he does. If Orwell had grown up in a time without the global issues he faced, would his writing be largely recognized and read today? Would we place merit on him as a writer or would he be lost in the background? We see that according to Orwell, “It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.” So is his writing inevitable, a product of a middle child with enough time on his hands to allow his imagination to run wild combined with a controversial time period?

“why I write” by Caroline Kowalski

In terms of the Orwell piece, I immediately related to him with the middle child syndrome. He writes of imaginary friends and lavish tales to accommodate for a sense of loneliness being stuck in the middle and rarely seeing his father, and I almost wonder if he is talking about me. I started writing when I was very young like him and even won a fairy-tale story-writing contest when I was 8. I won a rare doll that still is sitting in a box in storage somewhere.  When he talks about his inner monolouge, I am almost relieved to hear that someone else does this- other than JD from Scrubs- because I constantly imagine myself in the midst of a story. My imagination running wild with all types of scenarios of what reality might really be like. I have kept a diary my whole life and have written every strange thought that pops into my head and this has become the written version of my story. He also talks about a “demon” that drives you to write and sometimes when I write I feel this same sense as if I need to keep writing and get everything out so its not trapped inside my mind.

As for the Joan Didion piece, I did not enjoy it as much . I did not get a sense of why she was a writer in the same sense that Orwell spoke of it. Instead it almost seemed that with her prose and her detail that you got a strange sense of the innerworkings of her mind, and in that way one was able to decide if she was a writer or not. To me, her piece does not so much answer the question of ‘why I write”, but rather attempts to prove that she is in fact a writer.