The Subject was Orwell


Thirty-five years ago, I started graduate school at UNH.  After four years in the Army, a year doing radio in Missouri and getting my bachelor’s degree in 17 months, I was beginning work toward a master’s degree in reading.  Anyone who’s tried to do a chronology of my life, is amazed that at this point I was 23 years old.  Granted, I went to basic training two weeks after graduating high school at 17, but life did manage to cram a bunch of experiences into a pretty small pillowcase.

My apologies to the reader, but I can tell I’m starting wrong.  Let me begin again.

I got a question the other day asking about my “writing process,” a subject I know about academically from working a long time ago with Jane Hansen of the UNH reading department, who, along with Don Graves, became a guru of the notion of using writing to teach students how to read.  I wish the way I write could be described by a process, an algorithm, but I’m afraid it’s a Rube Goldberg machine where the candle wick gets wet before lighting the string that drops the chicken into the pot.  THERE’S my writing process—I create a long and complex string of words that ultimately taper off, leaving a poor chicken in mid-air.  Let me explain, using an example from yesterday.

Mid-afternoon yesterday, after picking up mail at the post office (a microwave, a letter from my friend Gavin and my last physical paychecks from Liberty House) I poured a cup of coffee and sat down to write a brief appreciation of George Orwell’s essays and journalism.  He’s top 10 among my favorite authors (God, do I now want to explain that list and why Sinclair Lewis is on it but Franz Kafka isn’t!), but I’ve never written about him.  The draft began with my usual tomfoolery (three declarative sentences, each followed by a setup for a joke in the fourth sentence), then had five or six sentences about reading 1984 when I was 13, and why I hated it.  Instead of returning to Orwell, and how I’d discovered his nonfiction while living in Germany, I veered off into four single-spaced pages about my reading habits in the Army, life as a military journalist in the 1970s—including a lengthy confession of my journalistic shortcomings—what it’s like to be imbedded with combat soldiers in the field, men who had real jobs to do while I skylarked around and answered to no one, the relations between officers and enlisted men regarding hashish, and the finer points of paying rent to a German landlord with Johnny Walker Black purchased a deep discount on base.  By the time I was done, I had some grist for the memoir mill, the project I’m dreading most during this next year, but I’d left poor George Orwell dangling above the piece,  kicking his legs at screaming about being forgotten.

Let me rescue him.

I like George Orwell’s essays and other nonfiction much better than his novels.

Let this be an homage to being down and out in Wigan Pier.




2 responses to “The Subject was Orwell”

    • John, please shut the fuck up. If I want to learn carpentry, you’re the man I’ll go to. You’d think I was an idiot if I looked at something you’d built, and said I’d be lost if you tried to teach me. And you’d be right! Please come and teach me how to build a cutting board, and I’ll help you become a better writer.

      Since this is a public space, the STFU in the first sentence above is an inside joke between John and me.


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