“This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
There was a time, many decades ago, when an aspiring writer could make a subsistence living by writing book reviews. George Orwell did it for years, turning them out weekly, along with novels, opinion pieces, columns, commentaries, and essays. The voice in his essays is so distinctive that anyone who paid attention in their high school literature classes could probably pick his work out of an audible lineup. For anyone writing essays in the last century and this one, Orwell is the mountain that fills the foreground. You can’t go around him—he simply must be climbed. To see the world through Orwell’s eyes from that peak is to glimpse a landscape without ornament; no frills, no unnecessary adornment, just solidity casting shadows.
His wry, lean, prose caught me early in my reading life and I have never completely gotten over it. “Shooting an Elephant,” “A Nice Cup of Tea,” “Politics and the English Language (required reading for anyone who is a citizen of a country)” and especially, “Why I Write,” became lodestones for me. If I was within five feet of an Orwell collection and had 10 minutes to myself, I’d be pulled in magnetically to trace through his paragraphs, wishing I’d written them, and trying to hear my own voice in dialogue with his.
A good writer is like a window, he said, and through my journalism and writing classes I strove to become one. I didn’t have the ego, the chutzpah, or the incandescent trajectories that Norman Mailer could throw into the air nor could I take on the flat, uninflected observations of Joan Didion that usually ended with a shard of glass in one’s eye. Instead, I learned to subtract rather than multiply. There were always enough words to go around, Orwell said, not to worry. Less is more as long as you tell the truth.
But I had little of consequence to write about. You have to have something—anything—there in order to subtract from it, and piling on adjectives just to strip them away is as perverse as digging holes in order to fill them in. In time, I came to see that the essay, a sounding of one’s thoughts with an individual voice that registers the frequencies of the age, was ideal for me. Regretfully, the imagination that can follow the story as it goes ever on was not mine to squander.
Still, I know that I am most deeply satisfied when I am writing, and that, in itself, is a blessing and a wonder.
“When you write, you lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard in the beginning of The Writing Life. “Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
You peer ahead through the fog, imagining the shapes of trees or monsters, and, with patience, a rough path appears. You follow it. You lay down more words like flagstones, and eventually you see that you are somewhere, although just where is not clear. But it’s a ‘where’ that is worth being with for the moment and you build on it. That’s the sense in which we discover through our writing where—and who—we are.
For Dillard the trigger often seems to be the natural world. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an epistle of unsentimental wonder about a few square acres of wilderness in Virginia, is like dropping from the sky-blue ionosphere into a forest thicket, to land softly and to be still and to watch a turtle slip silently off a log into the water. Biology becomes prose, prose becomes a window; we look through and are transformed.
Orwell insisted that all art is propaganda, that the writer is trying to get across a particular world view that is rooted in personal experience, and that flowers in a time and place. It was supremely important, he thought, that the writer say what he or she saw. The ordinary person, like a scout on reconnaissance, could report back momentous discoveries disguised in the everyday happenings of life. It almost doesn’t matter what the genre is, fiction or non-fiction, what matters is the truth expressed.
“Push it,” urges Dillard. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search . . . . Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”
I think we find ourselves—at least I do—struggling for some balance between falling into the ditch of blithering opinion or the straight-and-narrow objectifying of stilted research. What is wanted, what I want to read, is life opened to another’s eye and passed along from one hand to another. See? Look what I found! What do you think about that?
To lay out a line of words as truthfully as possible, and for that to be found interesting by others . . . Ah, that is worth the struggle!