Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why I Write

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

Two essays, same title: One by George Orwell in 1946, another by Joan Didion in 1976. For me, they represent two poles for nonfiction writers: stepping aside and letting the story tell itself (Orwell) vs. creating a point of view through which everything is filtered (Didion).

Didion was deliberately riffing on Orwell, who famously wrote in his essay, "Good prose is like a windowpane."

Didion's reply: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."

The irony is that Orwell had an extremely strong—some would say caustic—point of view, and the good sense to realize he had a tough time stepping out of his own way. Didion's ice-cool persona is a turn-off for some, who view her as the ice queen rather than a stewing cauldron of subjectivity. So which is it for the rest of us? How do we balance the need for factual accuracy with subjectivity?


  1. Very interesting dichotomy. The trick to writing from a POV filter is having the kind of perspective that a reader appreciates and wants to follow. Frank McCourt comes to mind. Obviously that's true with fiction as well...the old sympathetic narrator thing (this is why I've always loved Scott Fitzgerald over Hemingway).

    I like what Didion says about discovery, too. Maybe that's the ultimate POV, allowing the reader to be part of that self-discovery process.

    I know that I can't imagine writing the way that Orwell advocates for more than say a magazine article or journal essay. But that's where he's coming from--more the reporter observing. There can be noble, even moral power in that kind of writing, but can it touch the soul and speak of the unspeakable truths that people need to hear?

  2. That last question is a big one. The funny thing about Orwell is that he's not really a window pane in his reporting or personal essays--he's very much an active POV. It's in his novels that he's more of an observer, and they suffer for it. 1984 has quite a lot of moral power, but his characters are talking metaphors. I think Didion's novels also suffer from too much of a cool narrative stance; they just don't engage me the way her nonfiction essays do. In those essays, you see the fierce play of her mind and the way she evolves and discovers ideas.

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