Summer 2022

Unit #1: Why We Write

Week 2 (July 11-15)

Excellent work students on your wonderful self-introductions and reflections on William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” I see we have very good writers already in this class.  Under Course Gradebook (to the right), you can check your grades on all your assignments.

As Zinsser reminds us, achieving clarity of focus while retaining our individual voices is no easy task but it’s something we can all work on over the semester.  Let’s also keep an eye on other key points in our writing, including “unity of focus,”  “eliminating clutter,” “building our vocabulary,” “keeping our particular audiences in mind,” as well as reviewing the basic rules of writing.

Please note that at the top of the site, I include a helpful college vocabulary list and links to a writing handbook I wrote some years ago (“Good Writing Made Simple”). I will be referring to these links as needed,

For this week, I am asking you to read three famous writers:  the political writer George Orwell (author of Animal Farm, 1984, and coiner of the term “Big Brother”), the recently deceased Joan Didion (I’ve included a marvelous documentary on her life and career), and the Mexican American poet Jose Olivarez.

Here are the readings:

George Orwell’s essay  “Why I Write”

Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write”  (I also recommend watching  “The Center Will Not Hold” on Netflix to really get a sense of this important writer’s life and career.)

José Olivarez’s essay “Maybe I Could Save Myself by Writing” and his poem “Mexican American Disambiguation”  Also watch him perform this poem: HERE

POST: By Monday, July 18, I want you to comment on what you learned about writing from ONE of these authors and how their pieces reflect their own personal voice and style.

26 Comments

  1. Tamjeeda Uddin

    After reading about the three famous writers, the one that stood out to me the most was Jose Olivarez’s. I enjoyed his essay because I was able to relate to his childhood since I was also born into an immigrant family. I also appreciated how he wanted to write to the youth that may be going through the same situations, so they can find some comfort in his writing. Olivarez talks about how he started writing to “save himself”, because he wanted to read stories to find answers, so instead he started to write it. He also wanted his poems to be used to create new poems. What I learned from his essay about writing is that there are many types of writings, it can either include facts or stories, and a fact can also be turned into a story.

    • Kehinde Bello

      You highlight the great points from Jose Olivarez’s essay. I truly like the idea of him wanting to help youth find comfort in his writing. Him wanting his work used to create a new one, to me, means mentorship .

      • Mark Noonan

        Excellent points Kehinde to Tamjeeda’s astute reading of Olivarez.

  2. Kehinde Bello

    I enjoyed reading George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” the most, among all three great writers. It is very interesting to know that at age 6 he knew he wanted to be a writer and should write a book. Although he tried to abandon this gift but eventually would pick it up as it was meant to be. He spoke about connecting with himself because he was lonely since he barely saw his father until age eight. He felt lonely and because of that he would make up stories, and talk to an imaginary person. I believe this helped in become a great writer. I also believe his story connects with children around the world and would inspire anyone looking to become a writer at an early age. I like how he described writing a book as a horrible, exhausting struggle, and painful illness. One has to be driven to want to be a writer. I find this statement true.

    • Mark Noonan

      Thorough and interesting discussion of Orwell’s piece, Kehinde. I really like you pick up that
      the great writer”has to be driven” to produce exquisite works of art.

  3. Kofil Uddin

    One thing that I learned from George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” is that there are many personal reasons why people may decide to pursue the art of writing. They are motivated in 4 different ways; “Sheer egoism,” “Aesthetic enthusiasm,” “Historical impulse,” and “Political purpose”. This author’s personal voice and style are reflected in his essay because of the personal reasons he included on why he thinks people may decide to write a piece of literature. He gives really distinct reasons and they all sound very reasonable since I can also agree with one of the reasons. These reasons can help me get a sense of understanding of what the author believes writing is inspired by. His first reason is relatable to many people and that shows that his belief in writing is a love-hate relationship. He believes that people are forced into some careers and end up being good at it and he feels that writing is one of those careers.

    • Mark Noonan

      Astute discussion of Orwell’s impulses for writing and the secret to his strong style: his sheer love of writing and the importance it can have.

  4. Lira Dauti

    I all three of the readings there were things that resonated with me and new ones that I hadn’t thought of, however I found Joan Didion’s essay the most interesting to me. Her description of the use of images and grammar are what caught my attention. Let me start with the grammar, for which “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind”, according to the author. The notion of grammar as a powerful tool that can shape the picture you are conveying is one that has always been part of any writing assignment I have ever had, and it is far easier to do with a language that allows the freedom to do what you desire with a sentence, and always have it mean something. That is how Italian grammar works, and when I used to write in Italian I loved to switch words around, make it more or less dramatic, put verbs and subjects wherever I desired (within what logic allowed), and always have a sentence that just made sense. The English language, however, doesn’t quite work like that, and even though there’s still room to move things round, it requires a certain structure for the sentence to make sense (verbs go after the subject, adjectives before nouns, there’s even a rule on what adjective must go first when a noun has more than one), so it has been difficult to explore grammar the way I am used to, but Joan Didion gave me the hope that I’ll work it out.
    The author’s process of going from strictly descriptive writing of real life images to an imaginative narrative is a way of writing that I hadn’t thought of before. For a while, whenever I felt lonely, I kept a notebook that I filled with a description of what I was looking at, touching, drinking… My writing has never taken a step into the imaginative realm, because all I have ever wrote were either diary entries, little poems about real things I could touch and see, and essays for school. I found the author’s ability to question the details of her reality and take the answers into the imaginative world which such simplicity eye-opening, I never thought of going from “[…] feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6:00 a.m.”, to putting a woman in the airport later, asking “Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been?” and finally letting the answers to that write the story.

    • Mark Noonan

      Extremely interesting discussion of Didion’s intense interest in the power of grammar in shaping her writing, Lira. Your discussion of writing in Italian is also illuminating. Do you happen to know the work of Jhumpa Lahiri? She is a ground-breaking Indian American author, who after writing several critically acclaimed novels ( Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, etc) she actually decided to learn Italian and write in it.

      Here is an article on her latest book (in Italian), which I think you might find interesting:

  5. Jose Bocio

    I liked Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write.” In this essay, she explains her story of how she came to know why she writes. She also gave us examples of how some things work for her. Here I could see the repetition of “I” to emphasize the importance of likewise in writing. For her, the words “Why I Write” make sense. I learned that finding a reason why you write is important. Writing is not just writing; grammar is of the utmost importance to structuring writing. I personally think that grammar plays a very important role. Words, sentences, paragraphs, etc., can be interpreted in other ways if the grammatical structure is wrong, unless you want it that way.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent reading of Didion’s profound interest in what grammar and words can do to make writing really stand out and matter, Jose.

  6. Gurpreet

    I read all three essays and discussed comments on George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write.” It’s fascinating that he wrote his first poem at the age of 5 and a Semi-comic Poem at the age of fourteen. It’s amazing how he knew he wanted to be a writer and even tried to relinquish the idea, but he couldn’t. The author tells us about his writing being inadequate and unfinished and even had failures, but just loving the art of writing motivated him. the author took inspiration from the many others he read and improved his writing. The author wants the young generation to improve on his concepts and use his ideas to improve theirs.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent point about Orwell’s sheer enthusiasm for writing that eventually helped turn him into a great, great writer!

  7. Dabin Tang

    After I read these readings, I like George Orwell’s “Why I Write” the most. And one thing that I learned from his essay is that there are four great motives for writing, “Sheer egoism”, “Aesthetic enthusiasm”, “Historical impulse”, and “Political purpose”. Sheer egoism is self-centered and hopes to be remembered, aesthetic enthusiasm makes one’s writing look and sounds good, Historical impulse desires to see the truth of history, and Political purpose expects to change other people’s ideas. George Orwell is an author who writes truthfully with honest political convictions. The author says: “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Although Orwell wrote about politics, he did not trust any ideology, and his writing depended not on political theory of one kind or another, but on his own experience and feeling, which was not alone, Rather, it is connected to the realities of other people’s lives.

    • Mark Noonan

      Very careful reading of the sophisticated nuances of Orwell’s writerly persona. He is indeed a writer of deep conviction, who maintained a very individual point of view on such a broad range of important topics.

  8. Mohammed Ahmed

    Of the three readings, George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” stood out to me the most. This essay was quite fascinating overall. In essence, he explains why he writes. He wanted us to know that he had known from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. It was something he had within. The author joined a few phrases together. For instance, “I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.” Literary ambitions and the feeling of being isolated prove why he writes and connects with the title of the essay. He used several metaphors, such as “sending shivers down my backbones,” to help us grasp what he was saying and experiencing at the moment. He demonstrated his great love of language by giving us passages and examples that helped us envision the things he was explaining.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent point Mohammed about Orwell’s sheer love of language and metaphors that often send “shivers” down the spine of his readers!

  9. Vasyl Kadar

    After reading all three passages, George Orwell’s “Why I Write” stood out to me the most. I found his style to be very honest and direct. He spoke about his childhood and what influenced him to become the writer that he is without sugar coating or cutting it short. He started writing from an early age and I believe due to that he was able to find his true writing style. He stated that writers have four different motives for writing; sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose, his work projected a bit of all four. He also mentioned “And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” I believe in this way he projected a lot of his personality in this essay.

    • Mark Noonan

      Insightful reading of Orwell, Vasyl. I particularly like your line that he became a writer “without sugar coating or cutting it short.”

  10. Thandeka Morgan

    After reading Joan Didion’s essay, I learned about the importance of letting the picture one creates within their mind guide their words and the flow of the grammar. She compared the way she felt grammar works to the way a camera would. It’s ability to capture multiple angles, that can portray one scene in a myriad of ways, is much like how one can alter the structure of a sentence to change not only its meaning, but the perspective of the reader as well. She stated, “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.” Didion’s “A Book of Common Prayer” reflects her writing style because of the way she chose to start the novel. She explained that she had several mental pictures in mind, but none of them provided her with the story she needed. However, her experience at an airport in Panama was what brought everything together for her. With a mixture of fact and fiction, she created a story about an imaginary woman’s experience in an airport. This led to several questions that Didion needed answered to build on her plot.

    • Mark Noonan

      Very artful response, Thandeka, to Didion’s careful sense of prose and “camera eye” as you put it.

  11. Zulma A Ordonez (Cruz)

    Upon reading the wonderful work of these three writers, and reading all prior comments made by my classmates, I decided to write some additional points about Jose Olivarez’s essay “Maybe I Could Save Myself By Writing.” His words resonated with me, because of my own experience growing up as an American with Ecuadorian parents. When visiting Ecuador I was referred to as “la gringa” just like he was and not belonging. I liked how he mentioned that school became easy once he memorized facts. Students were an empty bank in which it was the teachers responsibility to deposit facts, thus having sole power. This made me see how far education has come from what it was years ago. Nowadays, students are encouraged to speak up and actively participate, so power is shared. Writing made him see things differently, so he stopped being interested in models of education that didn’t consider him an active participant, became concerned about power. I learned it’s ok not to remember all the facts of ones life, writing is still possible, as it did for him. Hence, he displayed honesty when writing “a book of poems with one foot in the past, one hand in the present, and a nose on the future.” His humility, transparency, and open-ness to constructive criticism from his peers is something worthy of imitating.

    • Mark Noonan

      Great additional points on Olivarez, Zulma. You really do a great job bringing out the sheer genius and courage of this author as well as the many rhetorical tools he pulls out of his toolbox. It’s also true that students today “are encouraged to speak up and actively participate, so power is shared.” Writing well is such an important part of this.

  12. Monique Farquharson

    I thought it was interesting that Joan Didion saw writing as demanding people to see your point of view. Her piece reflected her own personal voice and style because she wrote freely and spoke to the writer directly. I learned about her white space in her writing, where she will write something without closing it or introducing it. I think using this technique in a book causes confusion but in a suspenseful way that will make the reader want to keep reading. I thought it was interesting that she wrote for the purpose of seeing her thoughts. I also found how she said her writer’s mind stayed in an airport she was in for years, and when she wrote about it she added a made up person in a real life scenario.

    • Mark Noonan

      Very profound response to the power of Didion’s personal style and her courage to speak freely and directly to her readers, as you so ably put it.

  13. Kymani R

    What I learned from José Olivarez’s reason to write is that one fact can bring out many truths about a situation. That his reason to write is to give comfort to others when they read his poems because they feel like their story is being told, and I respect that as a reader. He knows that there aren’t one or two sides to a fact, but that there is a multi-sided face to a fact and all of those faces could be true. There can be many truths to one fact and as a reader, we should take in all of those truths and evaluate them to better understand those truths. He understands how it feels to be shut out and that drives him to be an active participant in the things he believes in.

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