Re: Orwell & Didion

Something in Orwell’s reading that resonated with me, that I first wasn’t really sure I agreed with, is his argument that we need to know an author’s background in order to understand their true motives. I want to say that I could read a similar statement about any writer’s motives for writing at face value but the more I think about it, the more of a disservice that seems. Knowing both Orwell’s experiences in Burma and Didion’s wandering at Berkeley helps us understand their views with more integrity that I think is necessary given how personal writing is.
I was initially kind of turned off by Orwell’s four motives, though  – how can we really boil the act of writing down words (at least prose) to four single ideas? – but his explanation that they’re always in flux, depending on the writer’s location, age, mood, state, whatever, took away some of my doubt and made me think harder about what “political purpose” actually means.
Something I really loved from Didion’s piece was her line “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” The process of discovery she describes is one of my favorite parts about writing – fitting words together to make them convey exactly what you need them to, even the things you didn’t know you needed to convey. It’s interesting to compare her process of such personal self-discovery to Orwell’s thoughts on truthfulness, that the writer needs to “efface his own personality” to write something readable. Part of me thinks Orwell needs to calm down a little.

Why I Write (response)

I started by reading Orwell’s piece and immediately identified with his comment on how he initially produced “made-to-order stuff” for people when he wrote. I feel like that is the majority of what I end up writing, especially in the hectic college scene where I am required to churn out dozens of papers in a certain format. However, Orwell goes on to break down the reasons writers have the impulse to write when they are not being forced to. I thought his four reasons were very insightful. One of the only times I currently find myself not writing for class is when I jot down a sentence or two about my day in order to preserve my memories for later reflection. I feel like this tendency is similar to the “historical impulse” Orwell describes – I want to keep these facts/moments about my day for later use.

I found Didion’s piece to be humorous, yet a little hard to follow or relate to. Although I did not really identify with her comment that she writes to answer questions that she does not know the answers to, I found it intriguing and a great look into the mind of a published author.

Sullivan’s piece on why he blogs was refreshing because, until now, I have never blogged. It was fascinating to read his description and interpretation of what blogging is. I think I will try to remember his comment that blogging is “writing out loud” whenever I have to blog over the course of the writing minor. I appreciated the reasons he described for why he blogs and can see why this can be an appealing way to write and garner many readers and instant feedback. However, I sometimes find it hard to hear other’s criticisms, so I think that this could be a rude shock to me if I ever start blogging more religiously!


…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.

Wait.. Why do I write?

I forget what it is exactly I like about writing every time I go to start a new assignment (which, in social science concentrations, happens frequently). Instead of focusing on the task at hand or better yet, my opinion on the subject, I focus on the page limit and the due date. It usually isn’t until halfway through the assignment, when words and ideas are flowing naturally, that I remember writing is and always has been, one of the best ways for me to express myself.

Both Orwell and Dillion know their reasons to write. It may have taken each a few failed works (but every book is a failure according to Orwell), poverty, and too much work for too little gained,  but in the end, they became successful because they believed in why they were doing what they were doing. This leads me to wonder, Do I know why I write? At twenty years old, it seems that I have not experienced my own writing enough to even begin to understand this. However, I think I know. I think I have known since I wrote my first speech in the fourth grade; a speech that I won and for which  I earned recognition.

I write to organize my ideas in ways that I would never be able to express verbally. I write to organize my ideas, period. Writing, for me, is a method of self-discovery.  I can’t say that I would have a strong opinion on how Italian Politics shaped Italian Cinema in the 1940s or the anthropological views of gender and sexuality if it were not for the assignments that forced these ideas upon me. However, once complete, when I can stand firmly in my beliefs and I am willing to expose them others,  this is when I remember that I, too, am a writer. I have ideas that are important and that deserve to be heard.

I suppose this is where the egotism plays in. But, in reality, doesn’t everyone want and even deserve recognition at some point? There is a negative connotation to the word “egotism,” and yet, I believe that it is a good thing. Recognition, no matter how it is achieved, is important. There are numerous outlets for positive recognition, and without them our world would not expand and develop in the way it does.

Both Orwell and Dillion bring up points that left me pondering why I write. Although they have shaped my opinion with words that I am able to utilize and ideas that make me remember there is a reason, I think that I have known all along why I write. Perhaps this “why” will change and perhaps it won’t. Maybe there will be times when I can’t remember one positive thing about my writing experiences. However, for now, I know. And honestly, isn’t that all that matters?


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.

Outraging True Nature

“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.  Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four, I tried to abandon this idea, but did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

Wow. Right from the get-go, Orwell had me hooked. It’s like he wrote about my life and experiences with writing 57 years before I was even born. As a child, I would write all the time. I would write little poems, short stories, illustrated adaptations of the lastest episode of Power Rangers; I was always writing or thinking of stories to write. In school, I entered a number of different writing contests and, for the most part, took home first place honors.  I loved writing, and it seemed to love me back. As I grew up, I never ceased to enjoy the activity of putting words to paper but, as the years started passing by, I drifted from it. Growing up, my creativity was never particularly stifled, but I was always encouraged to pursue more readily “useful” academic interests such as math or engineering. Isn’t it a common joke, after all, that those who pursue endeavors in the arts and humanities end up serving those who made the “right choices” their lattes and whatnot? This urging towards a more technical education caused me to distance myself from the written word. In high school and my beginning college years, I suppressed my creative urges and focused on more technical, and potentially lucrative subjects.  I don’t think I could have made a worse decision, academically speaking.

I understand exactly what Orwell means when he says, “I was outraging my true nature.” It’s maddening to force yourself to do something, when every single part of you is screaming at you to stop trying to be what you aren’t. Silencing the internal voice that’s trying to so hard to push you in the right direction, to make you the person who you know you’re supposed to be, is enough a task to drive a person insane. I for one, am glad I’ve finally submitted myself to its urgings.

Later in his essay, Orwell mentions a belief in four motives aside from the need to earn a living. I had a pretty good laugh about the last part of that sentence. Fear of the inability to make a living as a writer is what prevented me from seriously pursuing writing from the very start of my undergraduate education.

Orwell’s ideas of egoism and aesthetic enthusiasm being driving forces behind the compulsion to write also stood out to me. He defines them as the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death,” and the, “perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their arrangement,” respectively. As an aspiring writer, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to write a great book that people will remember, and talk about, and perhaps even study for years after I die. But this sort of fame isn’t what I think pushes and inspires me to write. To be a well known, commercial and critical success is a seductive prospect that I definitely find alluring, but more than anything, I want to create a body of work that I can look back on and find myself impressed by, even as  I sit on my deathbed. Aesthetic significance is my priority in my personal writing, and I don’t intend on betraying it. After all, I know what it’s like to deny yourself and what Orwell would call your “true nature.” . I’d like to avoid that again at all costs.

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.