Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lessons from Orwell

A few weeks before Richard Holbrooke unexpectedly died, the veteran U.S. diplomat called a few members of his staff into his office for an important lesson. According to staffer Vali Nasr, Holbrooke gave them copies of George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language." He praised Orwell's instruction to avoid convoluted language and passive voice, and Holbrooke noted writers ought to value clarity above all.

Prompted by Nasr's story, I read Orwell's essay. The lessons are not new to those who have taken professional writing classes but one point in particular struck me as useful for those writing literature. "Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them." He goes on to admonish writers to first think about their meaning, and get the meaning clear through pictures and sensations, before finally choosing words.

Fiction writers are just as vulnerable as political writers to the tropes of our language - they're called cliches and sloppy writing. We can let our pens and fingers run away from us before we've figured out in our minds what, exactly, it is we are saying. I can easily think of a few examples from my own recent writing. It's a lesson I'm working on right now: trying not to get intoxicated by the lovely sound of a fun word but rather focusing on my clarity of expression. That's not to say that we can't play with the words. But let that come second. Jayne Anne Phillips is a wonderful example of the beautiful balance between art and clarity. She is a poet and said she took ten years to write her recent Lark and Termite because she was choosing the words one by one. I know I can't achieve her brilliance, but I can work on knowing better what is in my head before I try to find the words to express it.

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Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma