Blog Response 1: Connecting with George Orwell and Joan Didion

When looking at the “Why I Write” pieces, I read Orwell’s first, and his style and word choices stood out immediately. He uses so much eloquent vocabulary and sophistication that it seems the essay was written in a time when language was more complex and beautiful. He uses phrases like “outraging my true nature,” and “Good prose is like a windowpane” throughout the entire piece that make it sound like poetry. In addition to admiring his use of language, I also enjoyed his cynicism and self-deprecating tone. Though he may sound pessimistic, his criticism and classification of writers is ironic and relatable. At times I too like to admire my own work, enjoy the sounds of words, and use writing as a tool to understand more about the world, which are many of Orwell’s main arguments. Though I relate to some of his points, there are others I disagree with. For example, I do not identify with the sense of historical purpose that Orwell highlights. Perhaps this is because I have not yet developed many political loyalties, but it makes me wonder if I would be considered a good writer through Orwell’s eyes.

In contrast, I very much agree with Joan Didion’s entire piece. Didion, though inspired by Orwell’s “Why I Write,” took a very different approach. Her tone is less poetic and more conversational. Unlike Orwell, she speaks casually with the reader, a distinction that makes sense due to the fact it is an article rather than an essay. I was struck most by Didion’s explanation of how writing helps her think clearly: “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” This part stood out to me as incredibly accurate. In my writing I feel that I can explain thoughts and feelings that are difficult to vocalize. I enjoy journaling when there is a lot on my mind, because when they are on paper, feelings are easier to define. I can write and then read over my thoughts, choosing which ones sound right.

While reading both Orwell and Didions’ pieces, I felt a sense of comfort knowing that I am by no means alone in my feelings toward and dependence on writing. As Orwell describes, a relationship with writing is a part of your identity, and as Didion explains, it is useful tool to sort out a jumbled mind. As I compose my own “Why I Write” piece, Orwell and Didion have helped me reflect on these aspects of my own relationship with writing.

3 thoughts to “Blog Response 1: Connecting with George Orwell and Joan Didion”

  1. Hi Kaitlin,

    It’s quite interesting how some of our thoughts on these two essays differ. I always enjoy hearing other opinions when it comes to pieces that inspire me (literary, musical, etc).

    For me, Orwell’s piece resonated loudly with my own desires for writing, and I found his 4 reasons for writing to be as universally applicable as he argues them to be. I won’t go into each of them, since he provides adequate reasoning for three of them. He curiously leaves the historical category rather sparse. Here are a few thoughts I have on how the historical aspect of writing applies to all writers in some way as a motivation:

    It is nearly impossible to avoid revealing the period of time that one lives in through the act of writing. Even without specific references to current events, which Orwell did include when he wrote “Why I Write,” an element of the times creeps into one’s writing style. It infests itself in every premeditated choice of words, every aspect of syntax. Just take one of those very examples that you cited from Orwell’s essay: “good prose is like a windowpane.” This could have been written as “when one writes well, the world is clarified.” But, who is to say that such a translation is necessarily time specific? I personally feel that many of today’s writers simply do not write as poetically in their prose as many did in Orwell’s day. Surely, this is a point for debate. It could simply be that more people have access to writing via the internet in today’s age, allowing writers with less poetic styles to emerge/be heard. So, we see an aspect of modern writing that later generations may look back to and be able to observe.

    As far as Didion’s piece, I found it much more difficult to identify with. She hints at her wealth of literary knowledge a few times, but negates it by asserting that she is not an intellectual: “I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts.” I didn’t know this until my Gateway class yesterday afternoon, but “reach for my gun” is actually a quote from Hanns Johst which reads “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.” This clearly points to the fact that she is, indeed, quite intellectual. It seems that she is trying to avoid the label of “intellectual” and all of the associations that may come along with it. But, she is giving a subtle hint to those that would identify the Johst quote that she is in fact a member of this intellectual group (if such a group exists!). Once I discovered this, I felt somewhat distanced from her essay, whereas beforehand I related to in the same ways that you did. It’s funny how that works. /endrant

    It’s great to hear a colleague’s thoughts on these essays and to share my own. I wish you luck as you write your “Why I Write” piece! I’ve begun tossing ideas around in my head for it as well. It should be a fun project.



    1. Kaitlin,

      I really enjoyed reading your take on the stylistic differences between Orwell and Didion. It was something that I didn’t even think about as a read them and, now that you point it out, the way they write is so different that it makes it really interesting to compare their styles to what they are actually saying. I feel like a agreed much more with Didion, which might have had something to do with the fact that I related more to the more conversational, less formal or poetic tone.

      I also appreciated the reference to the mention of politics or history in Orwell’s piece. I think that, although an author might not intend to make a piece pertain to the issues of the time, they will most likely get included in some small way or another. Even without taking a political stance, certain views always seem to come through in writing, even if the author isn’t aware of it. That being said, I don’t think a writer has to purposefully add a political commentary to a piece in order for it to be “good writing”. As long as there is some sort of intent with a piece, even if it isn’t some sort of historical intent, the writing has the potential to be good.

      Have fun working on your own “Why I Write” piece!


  2. Kaitlin,

    Reading your post was really insightful into my reasons for journaling. Your post, like Orwell and Didion’s pieces, helped put my own unorganized ideas into a well articulated reason for writing. I rarely give thought to why I like journaling, but when you said feelings are easier to define when writing, I had an “ah-hah” moment. It is much easier to slow your brain down and articulate everything through writing, and it feels great to have a creative outlet like writing.

    I completely agree with what you said about Orwell living in a time with a better understanding of language. His words carried substance and impact, and his essay seemed to be showing me some truth about writing. Maybe it was because he was very frank with his views, but I felt like the words he chose and the way he expressed his ideas seemed to carry some truth that was at the surface of the sentence. Like you, I feel like the historical aspect is something I don’t possess either. I think that’s okay though, because not everything has to be rooted in some historical context, or covered in underlying political motives. Solid post that was very thought provoking, and in many ways, helpful to better understand why I write.


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