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.