January 30, 2006

Denial is the name of the writing game

It's funny. This book I'm reading for Media Lab has an introduction and says some pretty profound things about the craft of journalism, and I was completely disinterested. Shouldn't I really care? Shouldn't I worry about this kind of thing? Maybe not. I skimmed sections I knew were probably profound, but it all seemed like superficial, hyperintense puff-up-my-book action. I'm not feeling too badly about it.

I guess I just wanted to get to the part where George Orwell steps in and starts describing his real experience as a writer. I think I've had a little too much theory. It was time for Georgie to step in with the facts of life.

It's a strange thing, reading a writer's work while he is working, but now he is dead and you know what lay ahead in his life. By the time he wrote "Why I Write", he's reached some celebrity, but he isn't jaded or pompous like the book's introduction. He is real to the point of describing writing a book as a "horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of asome painful illness".

I feel that, but it is something that I can't live happily without. I guess the feeling is infectious among writers: he writes, "So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style...and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information."

I think that last part of that quote really speaks. Writers take useless things, particularly dog and pony shows, in the journalist's experience, and make them work for a purpose. Quite unlike any other field. When I was chatting with a Trib reporter, he said he couldn't do any other business. I asked why. He said that journalists really do something different from any other profession and the skills do not usually translate to something "related" like PR. I'm starting to understand that. I'm already having difficulty with turning my journalistic mind over to fiction in my creative writing classes. It's real work to let go of certain beautiful things like "she said" or "Margaret Green, director of the Office of Public Information". Oh well, I'm learning versatility. It's going to make me think creatively...I need that.

One thing Orwell said in this piece is still making me think: "I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure." In truth, he is right. Books, writing, even articles for the journalist, are taken apart, savored occasionally, and inevitably thrown into the gutter to be, if it is "lucky", picked up for another round of picking and second-hand savoring. Like some pizza that is never fully eaten, just spat back out and retasted.

Okay, maybe I am being dramatic.

For me, the reason I write is to quench this nagging thirst. I agree that writing is an "exhausting struggle", but it is not always horrible. At times, writing can be like having your foot reset or a having papercuts all over your fingers, but not always. It can feel like you're standing at the top of the world and you see everything for a moment or you've just crossed the English Channel in less than 2 hours, breaking the world swimming record. Whatever the feeling, the memory of the passion writers expend on a certain work will always stay with them. These memories, in my experience, have helped me through the struggle and succeed on subsequent tries.

Orwell looks at writers as driven by a demon. I like the muse. Writing is unlike anything else, but the same ideas of positive outlook should apply. I don't think I'll ever drink to find my muse. I don't think I'll ever need a person to be my muse. My muse is illusive, but I always find it before the deadline.

As for why I write, I guess it is my "thing". I didn't collect stamps, though I tried. (The pretty stamps were all too expensive for my six-year old budget.) I wrote. I like stationery and I liked creating things. I wrote a book once about a pony who broke out of her stall and tried to find the wild. I even illustrated it. I reported the news weekly as Sally Wiggin with my sister on my church's altar (funny story). Until eleventh grade, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but looking back, that's exactly what I was supposed to do. Simply, writing is a good fit.

All the other things associated with being successful in the field, including the role of journalists as watchdogs, though important, I often skim. They cause worry and detract from my performance. A writer doesn't need that immense responsibility, in addition to creating a great article. I just know they're there in some drear bubble, and they sometimes intrude, but the tangibles, like Orwell said, are what writers should grasp most tightly in seeking coherent idea expression. The daily to-do lists are enough for now. I'll eventually look back and really read--with notes in the margins.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at January 30, 2006 7:24 PM | TrackBack

Yikes! I had leftover pizza for dinner tonight, so that metaphor was potent for me!

Theory lets us take a global view, and gives us a more stable frame of reference than we would have if we limited ourselves to talking about whatever happened this morning. You may have noticed that I've been feeling obligated to try something a little different with each iteration of EL200, and if I succeed in annoying you in a different way, I'll take that as a sign of success! ;)

I remember there was a time in high school and college when I remember thinking of time wasted in terms of words not written.

Regarding the watchdog role... if journalists don't take it on, who will?

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 30, 2006 11:29 PM

I wasn't attacking watchdog journalism at all. I applaud it. It is dwelling on it that can screw journalists up, making them not produce, or produce things -just- to say they have pointed out something of prevalence in government or business or whatever the powers-that-be supposedly do wrong.

Posted by: Amanda at January 30, 2006 11:35 PM

Hey -- I had no idea you went to the Trib! That's what I did. I hope your experience was as positive as mine. Did you blog during it? I'd be really interested to see what it was like for someone else.

Posted by: Jess at February 4, 2006 1:39 AM

I must admit that I skimmed through the introduction while reading, too. I've read a decent number of journalism textbooks, and they all tend to say the same things about certain key concepts, such as the watchdog role, or the broad role of journalists as part of a democracy in nations like America.

As for Orwell's essay, I found it far too pessimistic. Sure, writing can be agonizing if you are doing it to meet a deadline without any real personal motivation, but it can also be a great way to relieve tension and stress. Sometimes, I write things just for fun, with no intention of ever showing them to anyone.

I think Orwell found writing to be such a pain because he wasn't really passionate about *writing*; he was passionate about *politics*. If you're a passionate writer, you tend to enjoy the practice, not the final product.

Posted by: ChrisU at February 18, 2006 6:33 PM

True, true. Honing one's development as a writer should be a goal, not only winning the Pulitzer.

Posted by: Amanda at February 18, 2006 7:29 PM

Amanda -- I see your point. There's a difference between watchdog journalism and "gotcha" journalism.

Still, when the dog *doesn't* bark in the nighttime, it takes a careful journalist to notice.

Thanks for the clarification.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at February 18, 2006 7:34 PM
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