From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books….
I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts….
No, I’m not operating under the misimpression that my writing can be compared with George Orwell’s. I know of no essayists today who come close to matching his skill in writing. On top of that, bloggers simply lack the time necessary for consistently first-rate efforts. I’ve written some two million words since launching this blog three years ago this week. Perfection isn’t an option.
But operating under the dictum, “if you want to be a better writer, read better writers,” I took on vacation Facing Unpleasant Facts, a collection of Orwell’s brilliant narrative essays. My life has been almost the exact opposite of Orwell’s. Indeed, if you think you had a rough childhood, trying reading, “Such, such were the joys.” Compared to Orwell, we’ve all been raised by Mary Poppins.
Orwell does have the soul of a blogger, as we’ll see. He is solipsistic almost to a fault, but with a brutal honesty that puts even the best modern memoirist to shame.
Read about how his headmaster cured his bedwetting with a beating, a double caning with a riding crop in fact, after he foolishly announced that the first one “didn’t hurt.” Or read “Shooting an Elephant,” with its gut-punching first line, “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people “” the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”
Second, he has “a power of facing unpleasant facts,” which I think is perhaps the primary quality I aspire for here.
I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to force us to face unpleasant facts — see “What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?” and “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress” and dozens more examples here.
Unlike Orwell, I knew from a very early age, certainly by the age of five or six, that I would be a physicist, like my uncle, and I announced that proudly to all who asked.
I knew I didn’t want to be a professional writer since I saw how hopeless it was to make a living that way. My father was the editor of a small newspaper (circulation 20,000) that he turned into a medium-sized newspaper (70,000) but was paid dirt, even though he managed the equivalent of a large manufacturing enterprise — while simultaneously writing three editorials a day — that in any other industry would pay ten times as much. My mother pursued freelance writing for many, many years, an even more difficult way to earn a living (see also “This could not possibly be more off topic“).
Why share this? Orwell, who shares far, far more in his master class of essay writing, argues in “Why I write“:
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in “” at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own “” but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.
Interestingly, I think there are more than four great motives to blog, at least for me. But let’s start with Orwell’s:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one…. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
No argument here. On the bright side, I make no pretensions to be a serious writer. I’m not certain that bloggers are journalists. I think we are, however, journal-ists. What is a log if not a journal?
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
Again, inarguable. I’m an auditory person, for those who know NLP, and I dictate all of my blog posts. If you want to be a better writer, I suggest you read aloud everything you write. For me the sound of a good phrase, the pleasure of a headline that works, is immense. I wouldn’t blog just for that reason, and I’d rather have a widely-read substantive blog than a scarcely-read work of art, if such a thing even exists on the blogosphere. Sometimes everything comes together, as in perhaps my best headline, the one Time magazine singled out in naming me a favorite environmental website: “Debate over. Further delay fatal. Action not costly. This headline pretty much sums up Joe Romm’s message. Romm is a one-man anti-disinformation clearinghouse.”
I will take a clearinghouse over an arthouse any day.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
Even more so with a blog. In the increasingly likely event we don’t avert catastrophic global warming, I do hope that the reporting and analysis in this blog, which evolves over time, will be of use to those trying to understand just how it is that, as Elizabeth Kolbert put it, “a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself.” It will be a great source of bafflement to future generations, and I suspect that as they suffer through the misery and grief caused by our myopia and greed, there will be a growing literature aimed at trying to understand what went wrong, how we did this to ourselves. Perhaps this web log will help. That’s one more motivation for me to use as many links as possible to original sources.
(iv) Political purpose. “” Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature “” taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult “” I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.
Pretty amazing that Orwell uses that last word. The Wikipedia entry on “pamphleteer” asserts, “Today a pamphleteer might communicate his missives by way of weblog….”
Orwell explains the source of his evoluton:
The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
I couldn’t dream of saying it better than that if I worked on this post for a month.
Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. 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.
I also blog for at least two other reasons.
Peace of mind: I would be unimaginably frustrated and depressed if I didn’t have a way of contributing to the task of saving a livable climate, a way of responding in real time to the general humbug and sentences without meaning and purple passages of those who wittingly or unwittingly spreading disinformation aimed at delaying action on climate change. I hope the comments section on the blog serves in some small way as a similar outlet for readers.
Personal growth: The act of trying to explain the science and the solutions and the politics to a broader audience forces me think hard about what I’m really saying, about what I really know and don’t know. It makes me much smarter, if no one else. The rapid feedback and global nature of the blogosphere mean that I get to test my ideas against people who are exceedingly knowledgeable and equally articulate. Through this blog I have interacted with people from every walk of life, with widely different worldviews, from many continents, whom I never would have otherwise known. And all from the basement of my home, occasionally with my daughter by my side.
Like Orwell, I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know I wouldn’t be blogging this much if you all weren’t tuning in and writing your comments. The readership of this blog has exploded — for those who follow my feedburner stats, they have gone through the roof since the website redesign, for reasons I don’t fully understand. And I am in discussions to further syndicate the content, so it will reach many more people than who read it here or on Grist or Worldchanging or elsewhere.
Most of all, it boggles the mind that I have a profession that did not exist even a decade ago, but that is, in many respects, precisely what my father did, precisely what I never expected to do.
After my brother lost his home in Katrina, and I started interviewing climate experts for what turned into my book, Hell and High Water, I made a decision I would not pull any punches and would get “political” as Orwell defined the term.
If I have learned anything from the blog, it is that there is in fact a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk about the dire nature of our energy and climate situation, about the grave threat to our children and the next 50 generations, about the vast but still achieveable scale of the solutions, about the forces in politics and media that impede action — a hunger to face unpleasant facts head on. And that is possibly the most reassuring thing I have learned in the past three years. Thank you all for that!