• by Michael DiMatteo

I find myself reading Orwell quite a bit. Not so much because of his political stances, although I find his arguments on socialism wrong—well meaning—yet wrong, but more for his commentary and style. His is a conversational tone, as though we’re both sitting in a dusty wooden coffee shop imbued with the scent of the fresh brew, morning light coming through the windows and small bulbs providing their scant illumination. There’s only three of us populating the place this early in the morning; Orwell and I along with the barista standing at the empty bar with a white rag tossed over his shoulder, waiting.

We’re in the far corner and he’s sitting across from me on a comfortable wooden chair, hair disheveled as though just coming in from the wind. His legs are crossed wearing an all brown suit, a dusty white collard shirt underneath the jacket, and worn brown shoes with the creases of use over the top of them. I can’t tell if there are holes on the bottom but I’m guessing there are.

A barely bent hand rolled cigarette is held between the first two fingers of his left hand as we talk about the art of writing. Not politics, although even Orwell himself said that his writing is always slanted toward his political bias—that’s the only way he knows how to write—how to say something. No, we’re talking about the art of it all. How to form words into sentences, to make them actually seem more than popcorn on a string, to make the reader understand, a subtle nudge rather than a bash across the head with the dull side of the shovel. Better to explain through story than lecture directly for we remember stories, rarely lectures—at least the general public anyway.

We talk about his allotted lifetime—the period of authoritarianism and how he feels he was born in the wrong era. He should have been born earlier, in a simpler time and without the shackles his epoch is putting on him. I tell him that every time period has its shackles, the degree to which they’re applied only tempered by the present, his or mine, those in the future looking back thinking they weren’t so very restricting and they have it worse. The hubris of time, we both agree, and the arrogance of our own being to think it could not get better, or worse. He informs me that his time, the time of Hitler, Franco, and Stalin had never seen the like. Kings and queens could not be everywhere, least of all the monasteries, and because of that fact, life was more free. Easier to hide in the wooden homes and stone house countryside than the cities and towns of his modern era.

I agree, but remind him that there were sheriffs and men representing the king with a thousand eyes, even back into Charlemagne’s time – the Missi Domanici – and he responds telling me that even a thousand eyes can go blind if they’re paid enough. We both laugh realizing that life hasn’t changed all that much where money is concerned. I laughed so hard a bit of coffee from my cup spills on my jeans, Orwell remarking not to worry, it’s only coffee and that he’d like a pair to try on.

Somehow, I get our conversation back to the art of writing. He asked me if I read his work Why I Write and I respond that I did. He tells me that if I did read it, I would know writing with bias is a must, but more than that, the writer must understand his bias, have something to say, but resolve to say it with an artist’s eye. I respond by saying it’s easier said than done, and he laughs, his head tilting back just a bit as he does so, his hand making sure to keep his coffee cup steady, unlike me. He then looks me in the eye and tells me that’s the reason most writers give up; it’s too hard and only a narcissist and stubborn son-of-a-bitch sticks with it.

I want to laugh but can’t. There’s nothing particularly funny about that statement other than I think he just called me a son-of-a-bitch, which I probably am. He asks me if I take care to examine my sentences. I tell him yes. He then asks me how much care? I sit there for a moment, a bit perplexed by that question. How much can one obsess over a sentence I think to myself. If I obsess too much nothing will get written.

I tell him I don’t know. He asks me why I don’t know. I respond almost immediately, I don’t know. He then tells me that’s a problem for anyone doing anything worthwhile should know how much time they’re using up. It’s like spending money he tells me. One simply doesn’t spend money without having an idea how much they have left. They might not care how much they have left and spend it all, but they have an idea of what’s contained in their purse. The same, he tells me, now leaning forward in his chair a bit, legs uncrossed with feet flat on the ground, elbows on his knees and coffee cup still upright, should be true of the writer. You must be aware of the time spent on a sentence, he says, on a work, on a story—if nothing else, so that one doesn’t become lost in that time for to become lost means the work will never get done.
Spend your time as you would your money, he tells me, knowing how much you’ve spent and how much you have left for only then will you be able to move forward.

Then, he leans back and smiles, sipping his coffee, the smile still detectable over the cup, the corners of his mouth giving it away. I’m thinking about his notion of time spent. I can’t quite figure out what he means by it other than making sure I’m on some sort of schedule or else with no endpoint by which to complete, the work will be easy to set aside. Is that it? I have to think on it more, maybe then it will reveal itself.

A bell dings in the background signaling customers and two people walk in. I see them out of the corner of my eye as my back is facing the coffee counter and my chair is positioned so that my eye corner can see the door peripherally. Orwell doesn’t glance over—he couldn’t care less as he’s focused on me, as though studying me for some later work which makes no sense to me as I’m no one in particular, just someone who found himself talking with George Orwell. Then it hits me… that’s the difference. He is able to focus while I’m distracted by the slightest movement, as though a garden bird jittering his head about right and left, pausing only to catch the elusive worm and then, after wolfing it down, barely tasting it—if
birds can taste—he goes back to popping his head right and left looking for enemies that might attack either real or imaginary.

Orwell just sits there, bent forward in his all brown suit and worn shoes fully engaged in our conversation. He’s in the tunnel and trying to get me there too, but I’m not Orwell, just some wishful thinking writer. He notices. He leans back again and laughs just loud enough for me to hear. I ask him what’s so funny. He says everything is funny if only we would take the time to look. There are degrees of funny, but funny is there nonetheless.

I sit there perplexed again, my lesson becoming more complicated and my coffee colder as I’ve only managed a sip during this entire time. He then says if I am to be a writer of sentences, good sentences, I have to be immersed in what I’m doing, outside influences disappearing during the process, only me, my pen, and my paper—along with whatever is floating through my mind. I listen.

Then, he says I must remember one thing and one thing above all others. I ask him what it is. He leans forward again—then, sips his must-be-cold coffee and says, “Truth. Not the truth as you see it, but the truth. Period.”

I inform him that in my time, the word has little meaning. There is truth, there is perceived truth, and there is truth to power—whatever the hell that means, I tell him. I inform him that in the future, truth is determined by the person telling their version and the number of people willing to listen and accept. The greater number determines the truth.

He leans back and then asks me if I think it’s any different in his time. I inform him probably not, as that’s what I think he wants to hear. He tells me I’m only partially right. The government determines the truth too, either through their minions in the press or by their might—cuffs, jail and government coercion often determine the accepted truth too. He says he’s witness to it. I tell him it’s not much different in our time except the messages of truth have become distorted as so many have a platform now, their truths, even if they’re falsehoods will find followers—rabid followers who will never waver from what they’ve accepted as truth, no matter how false it is. He laughs again, and I wonder if I am sounding so naive it’s truly laughable. He tells me it’s always been that way—always—and will never stop. The difference is in the end, actual truth wins out—although it could take many years. I tell him that’s not very comforting. He responds by telling me few things are.

Then, as though a cloud descends, a white haze surrounds us. He smiles and tells me he enjoyed our talk. I ask him, the words tumbling out of my mouth rapidly as I know our time left is almost gone, if we’ll talk again. He says “Maybe. Depends on how much you read. I talk all the time there.” Then, one last laugh, and he’s gone as is the coffee shop, the barista, and the two people who I never really saw other than through the corner of my eye.

I sit up in my bed, thinking about what just happened. I don’t know whether it was a dream or some sort of divine intervention. All I know is that the residue of the encounter is imprinted on my mind. I swing my legs over the edge of my bed, my wife still lying there breathing deeply, and realize I have no choice.

I must write.


8 responses to “Talking Writing with Orwell – Maybe”

  1. GD Deckard Avatar

    “Then, he says I must remember one thing and one thing above all others. …. Truth. Not the truth as you see it, but the truth. Period.”
    Once a writer stops obsessing over their writing, I suppose the truth of what they write becomes most important. We still read Orwell -and others- because what they wrote applies to our own life. Generations come and go and facts may change but truth stays the same.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. curtisbausse Avatar

    As an unconditional Orwell fan (the diaries and essays even more than the novels), I enjoyed this, Michael – thanks. Orwell’s insistence on truth was indeed a cornerstone of his writing, and tells us why he was so concerned about using the right words – language is too often used to obscure or deform the truth rather than reveal it. That of course begs the question of whose truth – denouncing lies (when they can be spotted) is one thing, announcing an undisputed truth is trickier. Is it to be found in his politics? Difficult to say since it’s never been tried, except arguably for a few days in 1937 Barcelona. But the more lies are exposed to as many people prepared to listen as possible, the closer one gets to at least an approximate truth, and few would contest that Orwell was indefatiguable and fearless in pursuit of that aim.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Carl E. Reed Avatar

      Yes, Curtis: language is such a powerful tool that wielded expertly, albeit evilly, in the hands of some partisan hack spouting honeyed dogma and cant even otherwise intelligent people may find themselves led astray–especially when the wordsmithing spellbinder is telling them something they want to hear. (Confirmation bias.) From the moment I first heard it I have appreciated and marveled at this incisive quote of Wittgenstein’s: “Philosopy is the attempt to guard the intelligence against the bewitchment of language.” The bewitchment of language. What was anathema to Wittgenstein constitutes the job description of the competent fictioneer.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. victoracquista Avatar

        Excellent quote!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. curtisbausse Avatar

        The bewitchment of language – yes, indeed. To the ancient Greeks rhetoric was high art, and the best practitioners were also the best bewitchers. I’ll remember that quote, Carl – thanks.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. victoracquista Avatar

    Michael, thanks for this fine post. It is refreshingly atmospheric and a brilliant way to convey some valuable insights.

    There is much in what you have written that hits the bullseye. “He then says if I am to be a writer of sentences, good sentences, I have to be immersed in what I’m doing, outside influences disappearing during the process, only me, my pen, and my paper—along with whatever is floating through my mind.” This is true for me. I enter the zone and the world and all the distractions fade away. I am possessed and may not realize I missed lunch, didn’t hear my wife leave and return, etc. I woke up last night to make a note to myself and then lay there unable to sleep because my mind was engaged and immersed in the story I am writing. I can go on. And while I don’t think that in-the-zone is required to write good sentences, it does fuel something within.

    The writing that I feel most passionate about includes social themes–my bias. One theme that imbued a previous novel centered upon the difficulty in distinguishing truth from falsehood. This difficulty makes people vulnerable to lies, truth distortion, mind control, and manipulation. Truth is sacred. The defilement of truth is not unique to our time. It is part of the human condition.

    Where can I find this coffee shop so that I too can sit down and have conversation with Orwell? Doubtless, he can help me to write better.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Mike Avatar

    Thank you both for your comments. I had GD delete my return comment to Curtis as for some reason, WordPress did something funky with me and created a weird name and new account…odd. At any rate, I am of the belief that one of the biggest problems we’re having today is what the actual notion of “truth” really is. There is “My truth”, “our truth”, and truth based on any bias one can come up with. It is truly the problem with reading history, unless one reads Leopoldo von Ranke—just the facts and only the facts—but that doesn’t sell books…”interpretation” does. Was Gibbon correct when he outline the fall of Rome being invasions and a poor economy (among other things), or Finley Hooper when he said in his book Roman Realities “the empire didn’t fall, it simply changed”? Which is the truth? My favorite Orwell writing is one hardly ever mentioned…The Road to Wigan Pier. There is truth splattered all over the pages when he recounts living with the destitute coal miners of the 1930s. However, the real truth is in the second half of the book when he castigates what we call “Champaign Socialists”…liking the very notion of that ideology but unwilling to ditch their middle class life in order to see it come to fruition. I actually wrote a piece on it for my blog.

    Thank you, Victor, for your comment as well. Yes, vulnerable to lies for sure. And yes, unfortunately it is part of the human condition. Has been since, well, humans. If I ever re-find that coffee shop, I will certainly let you know and we both can revisit him. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  5. mimispeike Avatar

    Victor says: The writing that I feel most passionate about includes social themes–my bias. (Absolutely – filtered through the viewpoint of a cat.)

    One theme that imbued a previous novel centered upon the difficulty in distinguishing truth from falsehood. (Essential to my story, for sure.)

    This difficulty makes people vulnerable to lies, truth distortion, mind control, and manipulation. (Thank god.)

    Truth is sacred. The defilement of truth is not unique to our time. It is part of the human condition. (As my husband says: Who do you tell? The bedrock of my tale is the human condition.)

    Thank you, Victor. I’m not too familiar with Orwell, another one I read fifty years ago. I was at a loss for what I had to contribute here until I saw your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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