Friday, September 19, 2014

The Fear of Orwell's Eagle - by Brian Lance

Amongst my many writing/teaching gigs, I'm an adjunct in the MFA program at Western CT State University. It's a different way of mentoring and fostering creativity than when I work with my younger students at Writopia, because we're focusing on writing as a career as well as a creative pursuit. My students and I work together to create the syllabus for the semester, one that will be focused on their areas of interest and best prepare them for their planned career in the writing field.

One post that I have most of my students read is Orwell's Politics and the English Language. Orwell has had a huge influence on me, as a writer and a thinker. But this essay, in particular, is one that is so important for my MFA students to read, because it's about clear writing, and how language is used and misused in politics - and in business.

Last weekend, Brian Lance, who I'm mentoring this semester, sent me his response to Orwell's essay when I was at my daughter's parent's weekend. My significant other came into the hotel room as I was looking at my computer screen and asked me why I was grinning.

"Because I just read my student's response to Orwell," I told him. "And he's thinking about how he writes. This is why I love teaching."

Here's the response that made me smile. I did give Brian my "Inner Crazy Person" counseling (for more on that, see interview, here) because we don't want the paranoia to turn into writer's block. But I love that Orwell still makes my students think, as he did me.

 The Fear of Orwell’s Eagle 

 I can’t stop pondering what George Orwell has given us. Animal Farm. Nineteen Eighty-Four. The root of a word, Orwellian, used to label threats to free societies. He gave us well-described paranoia. Told us what and who to fear. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” is another tale of warning. He begs English users to reverse bad language habits. His pleas stirred me from a linguistic slumber, which I hadn’t known I was in. Orwell told me strengthen my writing, make it clear and simple. Now I’m clearly paranoid.

 I can’t get enough of the basics—the stuff beat into my head by hardened, baggy-eyed reporters turned professors at journalism school. Most people would cringe at the thought of an hour-long “Grammar Slammer” every week. I know many of my classmates did. But as a young veteran trying to shed the military’s linguistic influence with all of its clichés and euphemisms and learn to write better, those basics were a form of enlightenment.

 I am a word geek, always mulling meanings and roots and connotations in my head. (I don’t know the simple Saxon word for connotation. Researching it would be a digression I can’t afford here. Sorry, Orwell.) I used to think everyone was like this, until I spoke to my wife in stream of consciousness when she asked what was on my mind. She paused, sighed, and changed the subject.

 I can’t say why I read Orwell’s essay for the first time just the other day. How could my professors and I ignore this piece up until now? It’s riddled with the genius of a true wordsmith, self-aware, and packed with enough ironic self-criticism to stun any modern hipster. Orwell left me wondering (he’d hate that phrase) if he’d accept the term Orwellian. Would the –ian suffix repel him? Perhaps a topic for another piece. How can we live up to a master of English, especially when he breaks many of the rules while he writes them?

 I can’t stop cursing Orwell now. He turned my love for the basics into paranoia—affixed an editorial Big Brother to my shoulder. Now it lurks. Its eagle eyes stalk errors in my words, sentences, and paragraphs; its talons forcing sweat from my skin even as I type now. My thesaurus has no Saxon synonym for deconstruct, but that’s what I’m doing to my prose. Each word a strain. I can’t stop writing can’t. I must relax. I must write these thoughts and embrace the squeeze of Orwell’s eagle. I must rid my writing of slovenliness, swindles, and perversions. I must write about writing and editing beyond Orwell. I must use that anecdote about a classmate in political philosophy saying, “we need reconceptualizations of…” Why can’t those people just say, we must form new ideas or something similar?

 I can’t be perfect. Maybe Orwell didn’t want that. Maybe he crafted “Politics and the English Language” to sow paranoia among writers who care. An extra push to write as well as we can, without the convolutions and obfuscations acquired vis-à-vis the juxtaposition of the intellectual discourse inherent to university and the impressionable minds of nascent authors, on the one hand, and the linguistic pretensions of the avant-garde and haute bohème and their post-modern meta-fictive literature, on the other hand. I can’t be perfect. But I can try. Sorry about that but, Orwell.    

Brian Lance is pursuing his MFA at Western Connecticut State University, where he's an editor for Poor Yorick, writing his second novel, and squirming in the talons of Orwell's eagle. He served nine years in the Navy and earned a bachelor’s in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. His work has run in Oblong Magazine, Akashic Books, and is forthcoming from Carbon Culture Review. On Twitter @btlance and @pyjournal, and Insta @pooryorickjournal.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Monday, June 9, 2014

Torture: when they do it vs when we do it

Jason Leopold made an interesting observation on how the US media are covering what might have happened to US soldier Bowe Berghdahl while in captivity by the Taliban: 

Indeed, the Washington Post even uses the T word in the headline.

Compare this to reporting on what the US has done:

And this from the New York Times

So as Squealer in Animal Farm would put it:  "They do it TORTURE, We do it Enhanced Interrogation Techniques."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Since Orwell's not alive to update Politics and the English Language, let's do it for him.

I write political opinion columns for CTNewsJunkie, and I'm also an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western CT State University. One of the pieces I assign my students who plan to write for the web is Orwell's Politics and the English Language, because it's an essay that taught me so much about good writing, politics, media literacy and critical thinking.

 When I teach my middle school and teen writers about passive voice, I urge them to listen when political and government figures speak and try to pick out instances when they use it. I'm not just teaching them how to write, I'm trying to teach them to listen to how words are used in the world around them, so they can grow up to be thoughtful, informed citizens in a healthy democracy.

As examples of "Newspeak" abound, I figured it was time to start a place to collect them. Feel free to send them along! The inspiration for starting this blog came from Pando's David Sirota:

“Look, I feel very comfortable with my decision to go to work for David Cameron,” said Mr. Messina, who flies back to London on Thursday. He said he found Mr. Cameron’s support of same-sex marriage in the face of his party’s opposition “heroic,” and called him a “real leader” on health care and climate change. He noted that Anita Dunn, Mr. Obama’s first communications director — who, like him, has been criticized by liberals for her lucrative ideological elasticity — worked for Mr. Cameron in 2010."
Oh, how Orwell would have loved that phrase. I mean, rather, hated it. But loved it as an example of couching the fact that Messina is a mercenary who'll work the person who pays the consulting fee. We'll put it right next to the Bush era gem, "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques."

 Please, send links with other examples. We can keep the INGSOC dictionary updated.