Monday, November 28, 2005

Why I Write (after Orwell)

"All writers are vain, selfish and lazy and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery."
- George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)

So, on my walk today (I walk from my apartment at 124th & B'way, down Riverside Drive to 90th St. and then back, mostly along West End Ave.), I was thinking about this post, about this blog and what I want to do with it. And I was thinking about George Orwell's essay, Why I Write, and why I write. And I wanted to get some of these thoughts down. As a manifesto of sorts, and as a challenge to myself. As a jumping-off point for the coming months.

I've never trusted people who claim not to be "political" writers. I was raised in a very progressive, liberal (almost militantly so) household, so the idea that all politics are personal and everything is political has always been a part of my life. From the time I could talk, my dad had me on his knee, decoding the language of newscasters and politicians for their hidden prejudices and cruelties (my first lessons in subtext). And trust me, they were always there. Politics, political thought and discourse was how we conversed in my house, how we fought, how we expressed who we were. My biggest rebellion as a teenager wasn't smoking cigarettes or staying out past my curfew; it was arguing that gun control was a bad thing. (Don't worry; I've given that idea right up.)

So I'm mystified by people who claim not to be political, especially writers. Actually, I just think that they're lying. Possibly just to themselves, but lying nonetheless. I really think that all writing is political, even (and maybe especially) if it's been scrubbed within an inch of its life of any political sub- or super-text. That's because I believe that writing has two goals: 1) to preserve the world the way it is (or was), 2) to change the world into something else, improve on the condition of its inhabitants, to make life better (yeah, I'm real good at hiding where I fall on that one, huh?).

All writers set out to affect the world around them, somehow. To reach out beyond the confines of our own tiny skulls to touch the actual worlds. The question is always, what do you do then? What impression do you leave behind? But leaving the impression, that's the given. Only if your work is never read by anyone at all, never seen by another person, then you can avoid the question. Otherwise, you have to wonder about it. Wonder about what you're saying about the world you live in.

I read the New Yorker profile on Peter Viereck the other week and was really struck by it. I'm (clearly) not a conservative person, but the description of this particular conservative really touched something in me. And got me thinking. Because one of the things that he fought against was utopianism, essentially. The thing that connects Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, since politically, they're all across the spectrum, but in actuality, they're one in the same. And that thing is the belief that a society (or the world) can be perfected by eliminating certain aspects of it. It's the extremity of my personal belief. But how do you reconcile that? I'm certainly no apologist for the likes of Stalin, but I crave and work for a more perfect society. What gives there?

I like the belief in the perfectability of humanity. I get it from my family and from one of my favorite writers: Tony Kushner. I guess I see it as a continuum. That absolute perfection is not acheivable, should and could not be pursued. That's the way to madness, killing fields and mass graves. But that also doesn't mean that we're stuck with things as they are. It's about the attempt, I think. Trying, in this instance, counts.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with writing? I'm not totally sure. But I think, I wanted to lay out the groundwork for myself. See, I had this time on my hands. I've been happily, gainfully unemployed for the last couple of months. I've made some good use of it, finished a couple of plays that were kicking around in my head. But now the clock is ticking. This little...respite? caesura? (yes, that's a real word) is cominig to an end, right after the new year and there are still things that I wanted to get done, get down on paper. But I've been having trouble getting started. The blank page seemed a little too daunting this time around. The downside to having time to do something is that you have time to do anything, so finding the right starting place is nearly impossible.

And this blog has been a part of that. I didn't exactly want to just have a public journal, blathering on about my days and nights and dating travails, but a soapbox isn't my style, either. (Plus, to have a good, sharp political blog, you need to spend a lot of time doing research, also not my bag.) But making it a record of this time, of writing, of what I'm doing, that's more my speed.

There's another thing that I want to address with this: our myth of "talent". In America, at least, we cloak anything special in a miasma called "talent". Some people have it, some people don't and we don't understand how it happens. Extraordinary things just seem to happen, at one person's direction and it's something they have innately and which, conversely, other people don't have and can never achieve. I'd like to dispel that, at least a little. I often say, "If you can string together a sentence, you can write a play." And I believe that. Yes, I have an overactive imagination, but so do you. I've just had training to make my imagination do what I want. I want to give you a guide inside what I'm doing as a writer. And in order to do that, I need to know what I'm doing as a writer. And why I'm doing it.

And, yeah, I'm writing to make the world a better place. A more just, more satisfying place for as many people as possible. A more honest place. A more fun place. I think all of that's possible. I believe, not in a perfect world, but in a slightly better world. Just slightly, just enough. Maybe if we all believe in a world that's just slightly better than the world we're in, we'll wind up in a perfect one. Who knows?

So, now I know why I'm writing. The next part is the hard part: what the hell am I going to write?


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