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.