Persuasion, Passion and Drive

In “Why I Write”, George Orwell cites “political purpose” as one of the reasons why writers do what they do. He does not mean that every writer writes a piece aiming to make you a Republican or support the legalization of marijuana or at least I don’t interpret him to mean that. Rather, every writer expresses and supports some part of their world view in their writing and  through sharing it with the world, no matter how tiny, there is a “push . . .  in a certain direction.”(Orwell) For example, in Didion’s piece “Why I Write”, she focuses on the personal nature of writing and the “shimmer” of grammar that motivate her to write. This implies a thought process that one, writing is solitary, rather than a group activity and two, order is important, not just in the importance of how you arrange words together towards a message but how you must have some kind of grammatical order to begin with.

These may be obvious statements and are largely unquestioned in our society. In another society, these presumptions might be questioned or even in a different context. Gertrude Stein played with writing and saw words the way Impressionist painters saw paint strokes- the texture of the paint had just as much value to the picture created. As such, the sound of the word had just as much importance as meaning or arrangement.

Thus, in some way, shape or form, all writing, to varying levels of success, subtly and intensity, has some persuasion within it. Orwell is upfront about it, which resonated with me. His forthrightness seems to engage the audience to question him and their beliefs, entering into a conversation of sorts. It also represents a skill that I wish to hone in my writing, especially my academic writing. For aren’t all arguments in papers merely attempts at persuading a professor that your thesis is well-supported, that you weren’t sleeping in class that one day, care about 19th century intellectual aestheticism and deserve an A?

Because Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is persuasive in a similar way to Orwell’s, I selected Chapter Four of The Tipping Point as an example of writing to emulate. In this chapter, he takes supposedly disparate elements, a shooting incident on the subways in the 1980s, the Stanford Prison experiment, anthropological studies of human intelligence, and studies on school children cheating, and manages to bring them together in order to make an argument. Somehow the fact that these examples come from varied sources in fact aids to his credibility by showing how the idea he wants to convince you is true- that context or environment is an important factor in how people behave, possibly more important than things like moral character or intelligence- can be seen in many different places. Moreover, he does not bludgeon you to death with his thesis, he takes the time to tell a story, describing the people involved and the times they lived in, especially with the shooting incident. Once again, counter-intuitively, by going off-topic, he strengthens his case by engaging the reader with the material. He makes it into something accessible, like a story. As such, he somehow breaks “rules” by jumping around and giving unnecessary details, but achieves the desired result anyways, something that I not only admire but wish one day to pull off in my own writing.

I speak of persuading other people and sharing one’s ideas but another reason people write is that they are not sure of their ideas; they wish to figure them out on a blank page. Didion speaks to this in the last line of her essay, “let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel (Didion, 3).  The second piece I’m bringing in, “Coming Home Again” by Change-Rae Lee, speaks to that curiosity as well but instead of wondering about seemingly random, tantalizing phrases floating in his mind, otherwise known as plot bunnies, he uses this piece to try to figure something out about his own experiences, about his mother and his father, about himself and his past. His essay details his struggles with his mother’s death, her life and her role in his life as she dies a painful slow death from stomach cancer.

The language is beautiful, detailed, and personal, but what is truly interesting from a writing standpoint is the thirst for answers and resolution prevalent throughout the piece, a kind of curiosity less intellectual and aesthetic than Didion’s, but much more visceral and immediate. Yet unlike most of Didion’s questions, there is no one answer. In fact, he ends with a question that gets me every time. He imagines his parents after they dropped him off a boarding school, their first time separated for such a long time, and asks “are they alright?” (Lee, 102) then just leaves that question hanging there.

This search for answers that are perhaps not possible to find relates oddly to Sullivan’s “Why I Blog,” because he talks about narrative drive. He writes that if a blog “stops moving, it dies” (Sullivan). I would extend this to all writing. It applies to Lee’s writing and Gladwell’s, if writing stagnates on the steps of persuasion or on a personal quest to find answers, it can lose its appeal and the reader’s attention. Part of the reason, I consider both pieces of writing so great is that they are driven, one by political beliefs and the other by an attempt to order emotional turmoil.  All these writers are motivated by varying forces but one thing I see in all of them is passion for their beliefs, passion that motivates them to persuade and question.

3 thoughts to “Persuasion, Passion and Drive”

  1. I think you focused on two of the most important points of our class’s focus the past few days, those of persuasion and environment. Both of these concepts are indelible in writing. I also liked how you touched on how writers should not discount accessibility and even creativity. We all know the writer is really smart and excpetional at arguing stuff; now translate that into a way that the rest of us can digest.
    I also think it is cool how your response and reflection ended on passion. My entry this week was quite lengthy as a product of grappled with what blogging means to me. I too realized that passion is really all that matters: as long as you as a writer feel motivated to write, your style, audience, and creativity will follow.
    I liked how you focused on Didion’s piece. Admittedly, it was a little farfetched for me; I prefered Orwell’s a little more. But I do find some similar characteristics between her piece, Lee’s, and my own struggle with answering the question of why I blog. All writers have this curiosity, and have different approached for cracking the code for themselves.
    I think your blog was a beneficial synthesis of the week’s readings and topics.

    1. It’s funny that you pick persuasive as one of the key themes of writing because for my AP Language class in high school the text book and hence focus of the class was, “Everything is an Argument”. I could not agree more that writing seems to be about convincing its readers of something, particularly good writing seeks to do this. However, I don’t think well argued ambivalence is bad.

      I can also relate to your commentary that writing can often times be a search for personal answers. Much of the writing I do, both academic and creative is often in pursuit of a question. Once I had a tricky situation with a friend, and I didn’t know what to think of it or what the appropriate action was and ended up writing a short story about it as a means to explore what the right action was.

      I think any sort of writing that is personal, whether it is a quest for answers or thoughts about an event can like you said, stagnate if the writer does not make it applicable and relevant to a wide range of people. There has to be something purposeful driving it.

  2. Everyone, great conversation–you’re beginning to engage each other nicely here! Don’t hesitate to engage each other’s comments as well as the main post. Julia, I love that it all comes down, in this post, to “narrative drive.” That’s such a clear, compelling way of tying these seemingly disparate pieces together–so you’re already beginning to do what Gladwell does! 🙂 I also really appreciate the care with which you consider these pieces, and the specificity with which you apply their thoughts to yours. You comment about persuasion being in everything (I’m paraphrasing) is an argument I’ve long made, and I think it also speaks well to the comment you made on one of your blog team’s posts this week (about reading to learn/writing to teach). Nice work.

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