Semester Reflection

What have you learned this semester?

I have learned that an essay can be more than just a ten page letter to your professor that essentially says “I paid attention this semester”. And looking back I feel like that was an extremely lazy way to view it and probably led me to handing in pieces that were incredibly boring for my professors to read. Rather, an essay is a way of saying “Here are my thoughts on X” which sounds very freeing and very limiting at the same time.

I don’t think anything would qualify as an essay that isn’t based in reality. I think essays must be based on thoughts from experience rather than imagination. So even though Harry Potter has many lessons that would apply in the real world, it is still more an imagined story than an essay on overcoming fear and challenges.

But the freedom in essay writing, even though it has to be based in reality, is that your thoughts are still your thoughts and there are no restraints on how you are allowed to observe reality. Essays could deliver the same message in different and creative ways. Most commencement speeches could be titled “Author’s Name: On Life Lessons” but there are thousands of different ways in which those life lessons could be delivered.

What have you learned about writing?

I have learned that writing is very easy but easy writing is boring to read and editing is really difficult. In the same way that I tend to overlook typos when proofreading my own writing because the autocorrect in my head says “I know what I’m trying to say” and ignores the mistake; When I read my own writing and I haven’t described a thought in the most clear way I will tend to default to “Well, I know what I mean” and ignore that my essay readers aren’t also mind readers. The practice this semester of picking out one great sentence has really helped me because when I write 1,500 words there’s hopefully going to be at least one sentence in there where I say what I want to say exactly how I want to say it and then I can rework the rest of my essay to try to speak more like I do in that one sentence that I am proud of.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer?

I’ve never had a writing class where, once I learned how to actually do the type of writing that the professor wanted, I haven’t said “Wow, I knew absolutely nothing before this class” and then left thinking that I knew everything about writing. Before this class it was creative nonfiction that, upon learning that there was a way to write nonfiction creatively, gave me access to a new way of expressing myself through writing that wasn’t goofy poetry. But, aside from learning in this class that I still have a lot to learn, I also learned that I can have fun with writing essays which my 16 year old self would laugh at me for saying.

How might what you have learned in the course stay with you or be useful beyond this class?

I have learned that writing has to actually say something and not just be self promotion. The reader doesn’t care about you, they care about whether what you have to say will entertain or educate them in some way. A piece about a place you travelled to might be fun to write but the reader will get bored if all the essay ends up saying is “I travelled here and I want you to know that I traveled here”, and the same goes for any type of writing. If you have a really cool thought then you have to be able to say enough about it to make the reader find interest in it rather than just have them go “Wow, this writer sounds very cool”. So, essentially, a big takeaway for me is that a first step towards good writing is to think “What do I have to say about this topic” rather than “How can I use this topic to talk about myself”.

A Bad Memory is the Key to a Good Life

I don’t suffer from memory issues; I thoroughly enjoy them. If you want to know what it’s like to suffer from memory loss, you’ll have to read an essay written by anyone who has to spend time with me. They are the ones who suffer from it. They have to sit through the same story told multiple times and pretend to have the same reactions. They have to listen to the same jokes and force the same laughs and they are the ones who have to answer the same question “where are we?” multiple times a week. If you’d like to know what it is like to have a bad memory, I can paint for you a very vague picture of my experiences with it and just how wonderful it is.

But before I get into that, I’ll discuss the downside of having a perfect memory. I discussed in previous post about how memories are reconstructed, especially traumatic ones. This actually has two benefits for people with non-perfect memories that people who remember everything don’t get. One is that, if it is a nice memory that they are recalling, then they are not constantly tempted with the desire to constantly live in that memory rather than experience what’s in front of them. The second being that, if it is a painful memory, then they have hopefully recovered and forgotten enough of it so that the memory doesn’t continue hurting them for too long afterwards.

An example of someone who has a perfect memory, Alexandra Price, who is one of fifty-six known people in the world with HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, says she doesn’t enjoy any part of it and, if she does experience something she enjoys, she will think about that experience every day following. She has reported that she spends hours sitting alone in her room with her eyes closed thinking about the past.

One way a decrease in quality of memory leads to an increase in quality of life is because I never get bored, ever. I have explored Main Street hundreds of times since coming to Keene and not once have I walked down it and this is “This is getting old”. Movies are just as exciting on the third viewing as they are the first time. Many times, on Sunday long runs with my teammates, I have made comments such as “This place is awesome!” And my friends will normally respond with “Ben, we’ve been here a dozen times before”. Forgetting about the experience allows me to have it again with just as much excitement as the first time.

A great thing that I assume happens, but cannot confirm, is the forgetting of things I don’t wish to remember. I have probably said a few stupid things today that I would be embarrassed looking back on if I could recall what they were. Sometimes I’ll hear bad news that will make me sad but within a few minutes it is out of my head and I am able to focus on other things. This especially works when it comes to running races.

Racing is an especially painful activity if you are doing it right. Racing a 10k means that, of the twenty-five laps you’re running. You’re going to be in pain for at least twenty of them. Every time I finish a race I think “There is absolutely no way I am going to be able to do that again.” If I remembered this feeling while preparing for the next race, I would probably be too scared to get on the starting line because I would know exactly the kind of pain I am about to feel. Luckily, with a poor memory I am able to go into every race thinking “Maybe it won’t hurt as much this time” and even though I am always wrong, being able to approach every race with that mindset helps me to run my races more aggressively.

But aside from physically painful memory, emotionally painful memories are also things that can hinder one’s ability to feel happy if they do not fade over time. Joey DeGrandis, one of the sixty identified with HSAM, said in an interview with Time Magazine “I do tend to dwell on things longer than the average person. And when something painful does happen, like a break-up or the loss of a family member, I don’t forget those feelings” Every painful memory he has is just as painful to recall as it was to experience.

Having a bad memory I have also found to be very beneficial to relationships. As much as I wish I did not have to rely on people to remember things for me, having that sort of reliance has helped me to make friends with a lot of people. I think it shows people that I need them and don’t just want them around. Each semester starts with my friends memorizing my class schedule and taking turns walking with me to make sure I actually get to my destinations. Everyone who’s very close with me has had some experience, at one point or another, worrying about my disappearance because I have either gone somewhere and forgot to tell them or I told them I was going somewhere and forgot to go there. Regardless of how I get them to worry, they worry about me nonetheless.

I am told stories almost daily about what it has been like to be in a search party for me because people thought I was either frozen downtown (because I remembered to tell them I that I was locked out after forgetting my keys in my apartment but forgot to tell them that I found a warm place to stay that night and then went to sleep leaving them wondering) or worrying that I went missing somewhere in the mountains because I went home and forgot to tell them.

All these experiences bring many of my friends and I closer together, not only does it reinforce how much they care about me but it gives us something to laugh about later. They make fun of me (playfully) all the time and always tell me the embarrassing stories of the stuff that I’ve forgotten about. Most of them, at least the seniors on the team, share the same first memory of me showing up to preseason our freshmen year with no running stuff because I forgot to pack any of it. That whole situation is now a complete blur to me but it is still very fresh in their minds so I can always anticipate that they’ll bring it up at some point and I can laugh about how stupid I was to forget running stuff for a running camp.

Blake Richards, a scientist at the University of Toronto, says that constantly swapping old memories for new ones has evolutionary benefits, allowing people to adapt to new situations and to let go of old and possibly misleading information. He says that harboring the same details from a certain memory as that you had when you first experienced it will keep you from going about the same situation differently the next time you encounter it. It is all the small, unimportant details that most people forget that are the ones which would be damaging to our reassessment of things if we did not forget them. Basically, the small bits of information being forgotten over time are what would have prevented us from being able to grow as people and not fall into the same trap of seeing situations in the exact same way that we saw them many years ago.

There are some benefits to having a good memory. Important things are not forgotten, you never have to ask people “I’m sorry, what is your name again?” And have them feel insulted because they now think they weren’t important enough for you to remember rather than just understanding that you genuinely forget. Quizzes and tests are easy, I know this because that used to be the case for me, that much I do remember. And you can always look back on things that make you smile. But aside from that, all memory really does is prevent people from looking forward.

Good memories are nice because they are safe. We know the outcome is good when recalling a nice memory because we’ve experienced it before. That kind of promise doesn’t come when looking towards the future because there are no guarantees. But people forget, ironically, that their memories serve to help them improve their lives in the future, rather than to keep them living in the past. But living in the past is too easy of an opportunity for people to shy away from. The best part is, every time you look back on a situation you know that it is something you were able to find your way out of. My brain surgery, and all the hardships that came with it, I have no trouble looking back on because I know that I turned out okay in the end. I also don’t remember the hardships because of the more loss which prevents me from being able to look back. But it is that inability to spend all of my time looking back that helps me focus my energy on looking at what’s ahead.

Memories are Sketched, not Ingrained

I wrote a paper last semester about my experience with losing my short term memory. I talked about the struggles I have gone through since and how my life changed overall since I had to learn to work with this setback. Nothing I said in the piece was intentionally false, but I still believe that if I were to publish it and somebody were to fact check what was said in it then it might wind up in the fiction section of any library or bookstore that would carry it. I know I am not the only one who doesn’t tell the full truth when writing about a true event, and I am curious to know how different perceptions shape the way that people retell the past.

I wish I could continue this by saying that memoirs are very different from history because it has to do with how one experiences an event against how an event unfolds. But a conversation with my teammates this morning reminded me how history can sometimes be even less factual than any story you may from your friend about the crazy time he had at a party the night before where he skews the details in order to make himself look cool. Think of the people who write history as professional versions of that friend.

The root of the word “history” should already be an indication of how unreliable it is. “His story” is usually the winner telling people how he won in the way that he remembers it. And it is usually told in a way that will make him out to be the hero rather than the villain. I have heard countless times how differently the American Revolution is taught depending on whether you live in the US or the in Britain as well as the difference between how the North and the South teach about the Civil War or “The War of Northern Aggression”.

The reason for this is because the actual experience is often overshadowed by the emotions triggered by the experience. This is why investigators have spent decades questioning whether or not they should be taking eye witness accounts into consideration. A hundred witnesses to a crime, in a perfect world, would mean a hundred reliable sources. But, in reality, it means a hundred different people who witnessed a fraction of an actual event and who have all processed the moment of it in a different way. This is why many memoir writers encounter lawsuits following the publications of their work. Some may intentionally lie, as historians do, but it may also simply be the case that that person’s recollection of the events is far different from the person who is suing them for whatever false information they believe is in their book.

One way to get a first-hand account of how beliefs hinder ones memory of an experience is to watch a debate with a person who has very strong political beliefs. Speak with them afterwards and you’ll see them say, regardless of how the debate played out, that the person they were rooting for in the debate completely destroyed their opponent. You can also do this with any news station that is not publicly funded. One of the most fascinating things to me this past election cycle was reading CNN articles and Fox News articles the day following each presidential debate. Each time I did this I would ask myself the same question, “Did these people watch the same thing?”

No matter how it unfolded, CNN would say something about how Trump displayed his mental instability while Hillary stood her ground and Fox would say something about how Trump destroyed Hillary and exposed her for whatever it was they decided she was guilty of that week. These two networks watched the same exact event take place, yet each of their beliefs systems were so strong that they took away from it two completely different things.

Parents often come across this phenomena when dealing with their children arguing. The two kids will tell the same story in completely different ways based on how they interpreted it. The issue doesn’t go away in adulthood either. It’s something that I think is perfectly highlighted in the therapy scene from Annie Hall when the two are describing their relationship to their therapists. On the split screen both therapists ask them how often they have sex. Alvie replies “Hardly ever, I’d say three times a week.” Whereas Annie tells her therapist “Constantly, I’d say three times a week.”

You may be thinking that I’m getting away from my original point. But what I’m trying to do is highlight how poorly our opinions evaluate our current situations as well as our past experiences. So when it comes to what’s left in our memories after these situations pass, our internal evaluations of the events are able to become more powerful. This is especially true if we don’t have anyone there to correct us on what actually happened, which is something that I need constantly to keep me from creating a fantastical story out of experiences I’ve had.

Retelling of stories can skew the memories of them much more than just reimagining them also. I know with the telling of my own experiences that my stories get farther away from the truth the more that I tell them, sometimes within a few minutes of each other. There have been multiple occurrences in my life where I’ve been telling a story of something that happened to a friend and I just a few minutes before and my friend who was with me will have to correct me because the memory has already begun reconstructing itself in my head.

But reconstructing events afterwards does not make me unique in any way. Every person on earth reconstructs their memories even without the help of brain damage. For most people it happens with long term memories. I mentioned in a previous post how recalling past trauma can make them memory easier because you recall it from the place you are in at the present rather than when the memory took place. And the brain does not just do this as a coping method for trauma.

All memories, whether they are painful or not, are constantly being twisted by your brain as new information comes in. In an article written for NPR by Nancy Shute (NPR), she tells the reader to recall their fifth birthday and to imagine their mother carrying their cake to them. If they really focus they’ll find that they are imagining their mother as she looks at the moment rather than what she looked like on their fifth birthday.

The question now is “does this matter?” Is it bad that we aren’t telling the full truth when we tell our stories? In some cases I would say yes. I think it’s a shame that a traumatized victim can’t give an accurate recollection of a crime they were forced to witness and I think it would make relationships a lot easier if each member could tell the story of how their problems arose exactly how it happened and not just how each individual remembers it. But when evaluating all situations I would say that it does not matter. It may actually be better for us that we do not remember things perfectly.

One reason for this being that having a perfect memory can be disastrous for living in the present. As I will delve deeper into in a later post, many people who have perfect memories are often depressed an unable to maintain relationships because they remember perfectly every bad thing their partner has ever said and done. Painful memories hurt just as much as when they were present experiences and fond memories are always more tempting to live in than the present moment. It prevents these people from changing themselves.

I think it shows great personal development when a person can look back and remember something slightly different from how it actually happened. This can be seen a lot of them times when people can look back on traumatic memories fondly. Like I said in a previous post about a particularly terrible day that I had last fall. As awful as everything felt when I was experiencing it, the day seemed a lot nicer when I was recalling it a few days later. I was in a much better place and had a clear mind when I began writing about it. When a person can look back on pain and smile, it doesn’t mean that person has suddenly become a masochist, but rather that they are able to accept what happened and be happy that they are in a better place now.

Writing Therapy

A kid down the hall from me committed suicide last semester. I didn’t know him. I had never heard his name before that day and when I saw the picture of him in his obituary I didn’t recognize him as someone I had ever spoken with or even recalled having seen in passing. The face I do remember though, and one that took weeks to get out of my head was that of his father after finding him.
His face and his screaming kept me up late that night. I spent the time talking with friends and settled for emailing professors with personal apologies for not finishing assignments that were due the next day because I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on the work. The next night I found myself in the same situation. I was sitting at the library unable to focus on a writing assignment because every time I tried to think I would hear that kid’s father screaming. So I decided to write about that.

I didn’t have much of a choice. The only thoughts I could seem to access were memories of that day. Luckily it was for a Creative Nonfiction class so it was the perfect opportunity to write about events from my life.
I was able to finish it the next morning, a few hours before the class that it was due. Right when I wrote the last sentence there was a magical rush of relief. The screaming was gone, at least for the moment. The man’s shocked expression began, somewhat, to fade. And I was able to think about things other than that event.

I wasn’t totally unaffected by the event after that moment. The sight of men with the same style facial hair would give me a feeling of dread and there was one instance where I was walking down a street at night and a man came up unexpectedly and said “Can you please help me with something” and I lost feeling in my legs because it reminded me of the man screaming for help in the hallway.

But, for the most part, I was free of any significant burden the experience could have had on me. The interesting thing is that nothing I did would have helped me to forget about the event. If anything, writing about a traumatic event would force me to relive a lot of the horrible things that happened that day. But I felt great after writing about it.

The reasons for this were interesting. It had been less than forty-eight hours since I experienced this so the memory couldn’t have faded that much. Also, while writing it I had to re-feel a lot of the terrible emotions of that day. But as soon as I finished, I felt cleansed. It doesn’t make sense that reliving a terrible situation would make it easy to move past it. But somehow, if you relive it through writing, it does exactly that.

Why this may be is something I’m still trying to figure out. I’ve spent a little time researching and all I can come up with, from multiple sites, is the conclusion that “writing about something gives you the same relief as talking about it” but then I have had trouble finding out why talking about it with someone actually helps to cope. So I’ll take a few guesses based on how I felt after writing.

One of the reasons for this could be that it acted as a therapy session with an inanimate object. I told all my troubling thoughts to a word document on a computer and it was able to help me in the same way that telling it to a friend would. Although I knew the computer wasn’t actually listening so I didn’t feel the need to explain each thought as if I was trying to get it to understand me.

Another thing that happened when writing about it was realizing that, aside from that one tragic event, the rest of the day was wonderful as a result. My friend who lives down the hall from me, who heard everything from his room, took me for a night time drive along the highway where we just emptied all our thoughts about the day and worked together to try to make sense of it. We then went back to my room where he and my roommate made ourselves milkshakes and then spent hours laughing about funny times we’d experienced together. None of these feelings I remembered having until I tried writing about the day. Before that the whole day seemed terrible.

I think one reason for this is that, when trying to manage all the memories in my head from that day, I could only remember the times I felt horrible. But when I wrote about it I found myself able to recall all the times that I felt. I remembered feeling terrified when I first saw the man and I remembered feeling sad when I heard the full story of what happened. But when I wrote about it I was able to remember the time I felt cared for when my friend down the hall, upon hearing the screaming man, checked up on me because he was worried that I lived in the room the man had come running out of screaming about his son being dead. I remembered feeling relaxed when I rode my scooter down the street that night and there weren’t sirens blasting and people screaming. I remembered the fun I had on the car ride and when hanging out with my friends afterwards and I remembered feeling cared for again when my roommate made sure to remind me before I went to bed that I can come to him if I ever need anything.
As awful as that day felt as it happened, writing about it made remembering it a much less painful experience.

Essay Series Prospectus

For my series of essays I want to focus on how memory works in people’s lives. All of what we know about ourselves and the world around us is based solely off the information we can remember learning. In my series of essays I would like to delve deeper into just how big of a role memory plays in people’s formation of their own identity and in how they tell stories.
This is a very broad topic and I am still not entirely sure of how I want to focus my studies but I have some ideas. One particular field I am interested in is memoirs and creative nonfiction. Just the fact that there can be a genre called “creative nonfiction” shows how memory effects the truth. True nonfiction would just be telling a story of exactly what happened during an event however, there are some people who are able to write about their lives and make terrible events sound very funny even though they may not have been funny at the time.
This type of writing I find very interesting and it is something I find myself doing when recalling events of my own life that were not particularly fun to experience. One of which is the period around when I was late 14ish, early 15ish when I lost my memory. The few months before needing my brain surgery, when I first started getting sick, and then the year following my surgery was probably the least enjoyable time of my life. Yet, somehow, I always find myself laughing when I look back on it or when I tell stories about it because I am able to view this memory as I am now and not as I was then.
Along with how memories effect our current views of ourselves I would also like to focus on why some memories stick and why others don’t. At the end of every day I would guess that I am able to recall maybe 3-5% of what I experienced. Most of what I remember from each day are things that made me laugh or made me very happy and, as much as I would like to say that there is some beautiful and poetic reason for that, I would like to know the science to it. I don’t know if I have some sort of filtering system where I just drown out things that don’t make me happy or if since laughing causes some sort of brain stimulation that helps me remember those moments a lot better but I would like to get an idea of why that happens.
I think that the last area of study I would like to delve into would be the difference between long term and short term memory. I don’t know exactly what in this I would focus on either but I find it interesting. I can recall many events from my early childhood better than I can recall things that happened to me in the past week and I would like to go deeper into figuring out the reasons for that as well.

On Orwell’s Writing (Final Version)

“By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth. He showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage”.
Christopher Hitchens

This quote on Orwell’s writing I believe sums up the great advantage a person can have when they write in the most brutally honest form that they can. A writer who does that is able to say the most without having to worry about it being challenged. When a writer publishes the truth, they have nothing to fear when it comes to people criticizing their work. Because the critic can only say that they don’t like it, but they can’t say that they are wrong.

His first published piece, titled Down and Out in Paris and London, introduced the world to the writing styles of Orwell. Holding nothing back, he used his experiences as a poor writer trying to scrape by to write a fictional, but very realistic account of a broke writer who is trying to scrape by while living in Paris and describes the types of labor he had to do in order to make a living.

The realism of his prose was apparent from the beginning. The owner of the restaurant he worked at wrote to the magazine his piece was published in complaining that what he wrote was “unfairly disparaging to the restaurant trade”. Despite being a fictional piece, Orwell’s ability to paint for the reader an honest picture of reality was already being noticed. People not in the restaurant business loved it however, saying that it took readers to the underworld of the city that no other writer had gone to before.

One thing this piece showed the world, along with Orwell’s ability to tell the truth, was his fearlessness when it came to facing critics. He used a story to attack an industry he worked in; one which probably would have had to be his fall-back job option if his writing career never took off, and he had no issue when it came to tearing the industry apart. This first piece was a preview to the world of the brutally honest writer who had just been let out of his cage and released into the world of public writing.

Having read a few of George Orwell’s essays I have come to two conclusions. One is that he writes exactly how I wish I could write, the other is that he writes exactly the opposite of how I do write at the moment. In other words, I don’t write the way I want to but this man does. He has this amazing ability to say exactly what he wants to say in as simple of terms as he can. This was something I didn’t appreciate upon first reading because I found it to be writing that has nothing special about it. But now that I’ve read a bit more of his work I can come to understand that his ability to simplify his writing so well was what made it so special.
I think the person who best describes Orwell’s writing is Orwell himself in his essay “Politics and the English Language”. In this essay he lists his six rules for writers, which go as follows:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

One could argue that this is not a list of ways to make your writing exciting but I feel that nobody, regardless of how good of a writer they are, would be able to follow these guidelines and produce something that would cause a reader to say “I’m not sure what point this writer is trying to make”.
This differs greatly from many of the other famous writers of that time. I can think of many instances in high school where I was reading a twentieth century novelist for a class and there was some point where the teacher would ask “What do you believe the author is trying to say in this passage?”. The conversation then continues with a bunch of high school kids trying to decipher a complex metaphor the author felt the need to include in their writing because the idea they were discussing wasn’t interesting enough to be written in plain language.

An example of how I believe that Orwell differed from other writers at the time comes from a feud that I’ve read about between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner said, of Hemingway’s work, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” to which Hemingway replied “Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

Now, on one hand, both of these author’s insults to each other provide great but contradicting advice to writers. Faulkner is saying that a writer should try to stay away from dry language whereas Hemingway is saying that the language doesn’t matter so long as the emotion is there. What this reveals though is that both of these writers wrote with the concern of how well their work would be received. They both admit that there is a tool they are consciously using in their writing to keep the reader reading.
Why I believe this makes Orwell so different is that his writing strives for neither the display of a colorful vocabulary nor did he try to express wonderful emotion. His writing is centered entirely around idea.

His straightforward style of writing is on display again in his essay titled The Hanging which he starts by saying “It was in Burma, a sudden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.” Most great writers I know of have a great focus on detail in their writing. Many of which would have probably take two to three pages to describe the same kind of scene. But Orwell gives the reader the image of the scene, albeit with a little less detail, in fewer than thirty words. He still has the imagery down as well as the setting, and he wastes absolutely no words in creating them.

When he did go into detail though, he didn’t go overboard. He never felt the need to spend pages describing a scenery or even try to set a serious tone with his writing. He does break from his rule of wasting words when he goes on describing some people. This could either be meant for comic effect or that he doesn’t follow all the rules that he tells others to follow. One example of him breaking this rule is in “A Hanging” when he describes one of the prisoners. He describes him by saying “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting mustache, absurdly too big for his body”.

I think it would be fair to say that the redundancies in this description are meant for comic effect because they are one’s so obvious that there is no way an author would be able to overlook when proofreading. Descriptions such as “a puny wisp of a man” which, in very plain language would translate to “a very small man who is small” as well as the description of the man’s mustache being “absurdly too big for his body” as if any person could grow a mustache that is too big for their body which doesn’t look absurd.

Both of these add to the slight comedic undertone of the piece, they make the piece less like a story and more like a funny video playing inside the readers head. The images I would get in my head if someone were to describe a man’s mustache as “too big for his body” as opposed to “drastically too big for his body” are very different. The second image I get is a very nonsensical one that makes me laugh to myself whereas the first description would just make me picture a man with a big mustache. I think Orwell is very deliberate in this. Most of his writing goes by the idea that “less is more” but these passages go back to the basic idea that more is usually more. By overly describing the appearance of these two characters he makes it very clear to the reader how much they stand out.

I have written about the honesty in his writing but I have never explored what may have lead him to being such an honest writer. One reason, proof of which I believe can be found in the story of why he chose to write under a pen name, would be his pessimism. And almost all of Orwell’s writing was pessimistic in some way.

George Orwell was actually born Eric Arthur Blair. The reason for not publishing under his birth name is because he didn’t want to embarrass the family name for the time he believed that he would spend in poverty due to his writing. This is possibly the only career move he made for fear of embarrassment. He knew he wanted to be a writer, and he believed that all writers would spend time poor. Rather than trying to be optimistic and say to himself “Well maybe I can be an exception” he just went with the more realistic path of “This will probably send me into poverty for a bit and I don’t want my family to be embarrassed because of my failure”. This style of thinking can be clearly seen in the majority of his writing, almost none of which deals with happy themes and I don’t think any of his stories contain happy endings. Rather they had endings that he believed were what would be the most realistic outcomes, which I think ties back to Hitchens’ point about Orwell declining to lie, even to himself.

Orwell makes a very interesting statement in his essay Politics and the English Language about why writing well is such a difficult task. He says “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish. But the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible”. I’m not going to go into how much this made me reevaluate my own thinking because it would get off topic but I do think he makes an interesting point. I almost felt he was criticizing my writing as I was writing about him. I think he is saying that our thoughts effect our language and our language effects our thoughts. I always knew the former to be true but I never even considered the latter.

I think it makes a lot of sense that one wouldn’t be able to express an idea if they did not know the proper language needed to express it. If you didn’t know the word “big”, or any other synonyms that could substitute for it, than you would be very limited when trying to describe to someone something that was big. I think Orwell is applying this to ideas in general. If we do not have the vocabulary that is needed to understand and discuss a certain idea then we will be unable to understand and discuss it. And when put like that it seems so obvious and I don’t know how I never realized it before. I think this could be counted as a seventh rule that someone should not choose to write about something that they do not eat possess the proper vocabulary to do so. And I really hope that if I were to apply that rule to my own writing it wouldn’t mean that I shouldn’t be writing about Orwell because the more I learn about him the more I believe that he is too complex for me to properly write about. Although I think that, as I read, I might be able to figure out how to properly write about him.

An interesting, and almost creepy aspect of Orwell’s writing was his ability to predict the future through his societal observations. And these predictions stretch far beyond people constantly comparing Trumps’s America to 1984. This can be seen in his essay “You and the Atomic Bomb” Which was published in 1945 and used the phrase “Cold War” Which he predicted would happen between the worlds largest powers at some point.

As can be expected, Orwell starts this piece off by not wasting any words getting to his point… “Considering how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the next five years, the atomic bomb has not roused so much discussion as might have been expected”. I can feel the passive aggressiveness, or more just straightforward aggressiveness. This piece appears to be written with the hopes that someone in power will pick it up and understand that it is directed at them. Without directly stating it, he is able to convey to the reader, just with his word choice, exactly how he feels about this situation that they are in.

He follows this with a paragraph written with the hopes that it will be read by president Truman will read it and either feel insulted or change his mind about what decision he makes regarding the bomb. Which is then followed by an incredibly interesting history lesson about how the ability to invent new weapons has altered the history of countries fighting for years. Again, a quite obvious fact that I never would have thought about had I not come across it in one of his pieces. He ends this piece with an incredibly profound description of the Cold War that is sure to stick in the readers head when he describes it as “peace that is no peace”. I don’t know why that last part stuck with me so much. I could be overthinking it but I feel that it is a perfect way to describe the situation they were facing. Just because no violence was occurring doesn’t mean that anyone in the United States or Russia ever felt a sense of security.

So Orwell may not have been the first writer who tried conveying the truth through fiction, but he was certainly one of the seminal ones. One who influenced many other writers after him to fearlessly tell the truth in their writing regardless of the consequences. I don’t think everyone has to aspire to write identical to Orwell. People can still publish optimistic pieces, they can still use common metaphors and long words if they wish to. But every person should aim to tell the truth just as fearlessly as Orwell did. I think Orwell would agree that no writer has ever regretted getting in trouble for speaking their mind so much as they would regret never speaking their mind to begin with.

On the Writing of George Orwell (in progress)

Having read a few of George Orwell’s essays I have come to two conclusions. One is that he writes exactly how I wish I could write, the other is that he writes exactly the opposite of how I do write at the moment. In other words, I don’t write the way I want to but this man does. He has this amazing ability to say exactly what he wants to say in as simple of terms as he can. This was something I didn’t appreciate upon first reading because I found it to be writing that has nothing special about it. But now that I’ve read a bit more of his work I can come to understand that his ability to simplify his writing so well was what made it so special.
I think the person who best describes Orwell’s writing is Orwell himself in his essay “Politics and the English Language”. In this essay he lists his six rules for writers, which go as follows:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

One could argue that this is not a list of ways to make your writing exciting but I feel that nobody, regardless of how good of a writer they are, would be able to follow these guidelines and produce something that would cause a reader to say “I’m not sure what point this writer is trying to make”.
An example of how I believe that Orwell differed from other writers at the time comes from a feud that I’ve read about between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner said, of Hemingway’s work, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” to which Hemingway replied “Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
Now, on one hand, both of these author’s insults to each other provide great but contradicting advice to writers. Faulkner is saying that a writer should try to stay away from dry language whereas Hemingway is saying that the language doesn’t matter so long as the emotion is there. What this reveals though is that both of these writers wrote with the concern of how well their work would be received. They both admit that there is a tool they are consciously using in their writing to keep the reader reading.
Why I believe this makes Orwell so different is that his writing strives for neither the display of a colorful vocabulary nor did he try to express wonderful emotion. His writing is centered entirely around idea.
His straightforward style of writing is on display again in his essay titled The Hanging which he starts by saying “It was in Burma, a sudden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.” Most great writers I know of have a great focus on detail in their writing. Many of which would have probably take two to three pages to describe the same kind of scene. But Orwell gives the reader the image of the scene, albeit with a little less detail, in fewer than thirty words. He still has the imagery down as well as the setting, and he wastes absolutely no words in creating them.
Another aspect of his writing which many scholars praise is his intellectual honesty. Along with his ability to not waste words he also had the trait which many writers in recent years have either lacked or been too afraid to display which is the ability to tell the truth no matter how ugly it may be. In a literary review by Christopher Hitchens, a modern day societal critic with just as much wit and brutal honesty as Orwell, says of his work “By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth. He showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage”. This, I believe, sums up the great advantage one has when they write in the most brutally honest form that they can. A writer who does that is able to say the most without having to worry about it being challenged. When a writer publishes the truth, they have nothing to fear when it comes to people criticizing their work. Because the critic can only say that they don’t like it, but they can’t say that they are wrong.

Why I Hate Running (final draft)

I beat Bill Rodgers in a road race when I was fourteen. He was the winner of four Boston marathons and four New York City marathons in the late 70’s and early 80’s and I was able to beat him in a five mile road race by about fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a fair competition by any means. I was fourteen and in the best shape of my life at that point and he was sixty-one and recovering from prostate cancer, but the idea of beating a man who had accomplished so much as a runner gave me an incredible feeling. There was always a freeing feeling when I ran back then, and every run came with the excitement that I might go the farthest that I ever have.
Now when I run I feel like the Bill Rodgers that I met after the race. I feel very weak, and the free feeling is gone. I’m running for my coaches, coaches who don’t make me want to run well for them because they aren’t great examples of hard work. Their style of coaching is “because I said so” and their mind set is that if the training isn’t working it is because we aren’t putting forth the effort.
My high school coaches were far different. My cross country coach in high school, Pat McMahon, was an Irish professional distance runner. He came in twelfth in the marathon at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and second in the Boston marathon in 1971. Boston he lost by five seconds, one of the closest finishes in the races history and there are reports from officials saying that they saw him get elbowed into the crowd with fifty meters to go in the race. My track coach in high school was an All American for Keene State in 1978.
What made both of these coaches great was their desire to use their training to help us be able to see similar success to what they had. It was that training that brought me from being overweight and unable to break six minutes in the mile at the beginning of my freshman year to coming in second and third place at multiple league championships as well breaking ten minutes in the two mile and almost breaking sixteen minutes in my 5k. These coaches were understanding of any set backs and were willing to work with them rather than telling us “it’s your fault” and trying to make us want to perform well out of guilt. One time in track I made the stupid mistake of donating blood five days before the league championship. After hearing what I had done, my track coach modified my training for that week, and because of that I was able to set a five second personal best in the two mile.
Both my current coaches have accolades of their own, one was an all American in cross country for Keene and the other an all American in track for Dartmouth. But unlike my high school coaches, who tried to pass on their work ethic to us and hoped that we would be able to find success similar to theirs, the coaches now seem to be going under the assumption that they must be right because they’ve accomplished more than we have.
One example of the style of “because I said so” coaching is a change of time in our Sunday long runs from 9 to 10. It was announced on a bus ride back from a meet a month ago that it would be changed. When we asked why, Ryan just repeated “10”. As we kept asking “why?” And not “what?” his argument became louder rather than more coherent. By the end of the very productive discussion he was just yelling “10!” At us at the top of his lungs. We finally got somewhat of an explanation from our other coach last week, who told us that he wanted to sleep in.
I understand that changing one run a week to an hour later is not a reason to dislike a coaching style, but it’s the thinking behind it that is also behind the rest of our training which I dislike. It’s the “what do I think is best for me” style of coaching. There are fourteen guys on the team right now, one of us is running well, so the coaches tell the rest of us that we need to start putting forth more effort, rather than wonder why their training is only seven percent effective. It is the same coach who has changed our practice time to ten who told us one Sunday after a meet that we ran so poorly that he disassociated himself from the team for the entire meet. He said that he was there as a spectator rather than as a coach and stopped paying attention to how we were running. I still struggle to understand how he expected us to take the blame for him not paying attention. It sounded like if I were to send an angry email to Professor Long saying that I’m disappointed in him because I wasn’t focused in class yesterday. It is very difficult to want to run fast for someone when they are so quick to pass the blame for their own actions onto you.
***
It is now the day after the meet, I ran around what I expected to yesterday, somewhere in the 16:50 range, right about where I was as a junior in high school in cross country. My coaches were proud which was nice, I was not. My coaches have also gotten slightly less overpowering and a little more understanding. They actually listened when one of my teammates told them he needed time off. I was in too much of a daze after my race to think to ask them the same. I am glad though that our communication with them has improved from them trying to yell over us when we feel the need to discuss things with them.
I ran this morning with some teammates like they told me to, only five miles. Running has gotten slightly less painful this past week but it’s still much more tiring than it should be. I don’t feel like the sixty year old Bill Rogers anymore, I do feel weak, but not nearly as weak as I had been feeling. I’m happy that I can still find joy when running even though it is not the running that is bringing me joy, it’s the company of the people I’m with. It hasn’t been that long since I’ve had a run that has brought me joy either, a little over a month ago I was still enjoying every run even though I was beginning to tire out. And I don’t doubt that as time goes on and the weather gets nicer (and I somehow find a way to sneak in time off) I will begin looking forward to going out on runs again. I’ll hopefully be able to wake up on Sunday’s in Spring and look forward to going on a long run rather than struggling to motivate myself to go like I’ve been doing.
I am also really hoping I can bring back the painful feeling that I enjoy having after races, the one that makes me proud of the race I just ran. The pain I’ve gotten used to feeling after races is one that I didn’t think I’d feel until I was in my forties, where I wonder if I’m getting too old for the sport and should call it quits. But I have to keep reminding myself that I’m only twenty-two, and nobody burns out from running that young unless they started extremely young and were very stupid about how they trained. I’ll have time to regain control of my running this summer, when I don’t have any coaches orders to follow and the only race I have to worry about is the alumni race in the fall. A couple of my teammates and I are planning on experimenting with outrageous mileage this summer to get in shape for it which should be fun. It will be the first time in nine years where I will be able to run in the summer without having to worry about an upcoming season. I think with enough fun runs like that, and if I can get some of my strength back again, I’ll be able to remember all the reasons why I love running.

Spongebob Didn’t Actually Write an Essay!

For this assignment I was trying to think back to my first ever experience with writing an essay, thinking that maybe it would help me to get a better understanding of how I came to know what the essay is. I think I may have come to the conclusion that my first time being exposed to the idea of essay writing came in the episode of Spongebob where he had to write an 800 word essay on “What Not to do at a Stoplight”. This essay made me terrified of essay writing. It also gave me the completely wrong idea about how an essay is supposed to be written and it would take me years to stop writing it the way Spongebob did.
I won’t go into too much detail about the episode, but the premise is pretty much that Spongebob gets assigned this essay, then puts it off for a long time and has to write it all at the last minute. This is not a terribly inaccurate way of portraying essay writing for some kids in college, maybe some even have had nightmares similar to the ones that he had in that episode. But what really messed me up and made me struggle with essays was the final piece that he produced in the episode.
After spending a night putting it off, Spongebob pumps out his essay by simply listing off things that you shouldn’t do at a stoplight until he reaches the 800 word minimum, and you could say that he did do exactly what was asked and that the assignment was just poorly worded, but that is not at all how essays are supposed to be written.
For one, there was no arc to his narrative, you could place any of the sentences he wrote anywhere else in the essay and the message would remain the same because there was no beginning, middle, and end, it was just a clump of sentences. What he handed in was merely a list as opposed to an actually well thought out essay.
When I began to get assigned essays in school, I thought that was how they were supposed to be written. In second grade my teacher gave me an assignment to “write an essay on something you like” so I simply began writing a list of things that I like. My teacher came over and told me that I wasn’t writing an essay, I was making a list. She then tried explaining to me what I had to do for an essay and I was confused because it sounded exactly the same as what I was doing.
One of the things that she told me was that an essay was supposed to show your understanding of something. She, of course, didn’t try to explain to me that it had to have a thesis, supporting arguments, and a conclusion. She just said that it had to show my knowledge of a topic. This, I thought only strengthened my side of the argument because I was expressing my knowledge of things I like by listing off a bunch of things that I like.
Fasting forward to this class, I think I’m beginning to understand enough about essays to know that I still understand almost nothing about essays. All throughout middle school, high school, and even the beginning of college, when a teacher or professor said that they were assigning an essay I interpreted it as “hand in to me the opposite of a creative writing assignment”. For a long time I thought that writing an essay meant writing about a subject the way that the person who assigned it wants it to be written rather than the way that you wish to write about it. Essay assignments in high school can be categorized as “prove to me that you read the book and fill up five pages in the process”. I think this is where students begin to hate writing. They have to fill five pages with something about which they are not passionate, and knowing that, of the five pages they produce, four of them will probably be identical to what everyone else in the class is writing. The teachers would never give the kids an opportunity to write how they wanted.
I’m beginning to understand now that what made people like Emerson, Baldwin, and Woolf such great essayists, aside from their innate brilliance, was that they wrote for themselves. They probably had editors and publishers to please, but they didn’t have to worry about getting a low grade for not speaking the way someone else wanted them to speak.
I think, also, what makes someone a great essayist or even just a great writer in general is their experience outside of writing. None of these essayists, I believe, would have published anything if they hadn’t experienced anything. It’s also why reading about great writers is almost as exciting as reading what they wrote.
There aren’t any great novelists that I know of who didn’t have greatly exciting lives outside of their writing. It would seem that excitement is a key element in being creative in writing, which should come as no real surprise.
In a book I am almost finished reading about Ernest Hemingway, it tells about his life outside of writing. Aside from it being one big adventure from the time he was in his mid-twenties until his death in 1961, it also gives the reader insight into the basis for all his novels; most of which were semi-fictional accounts of real life experiences of his. I think, had he not become a famous writer, his adventures alone along with his heroic efforts in The Spanish Civil War as well as World War 2 would have been enough to propel him to some sort of fame. It was his experiences outside of writing that played such a huge role in his writing being so enjoyable to read.
Ernest Hemingway is not the only author to bring real life into his works of fiction, another favorite author of mine, as well as one of the few authors I still read in my spare time is Dr. Seuss, whose books are just as interesting to read as a young adult as they are to have read to you as a child.
Each Dr. Seuss book is an essay for adults almost as much as it is a story for kids, for each tale that he tells that entertains the child listener, he is conveying an equally entertaining and very important message for the adult reader. Some of his famous works such as The Grinch, The Lorax, and The Butter Battle Book could be seen as essays on the evils of consumerism, the damage of deforestation, and the stupidity of war. Each one of his books was essentially an essay on a topic that he felt strongly about, and one which usually only adults would be interested in reading about, but worded in a way that would be fun to read to children.
Looking back through most examples I gave and having re-read most of what I wrote, I’m beginning to think that most writing could be described as an essay in some form or another. Although an essay is generally thought of as a piece of writing meant to make an argument, it’s difficult not to make an argument if you are writing about a topic you care about, and it’s almost impossible to write unless you are writing about a topic you care about. So I guess not all writing has to become an essay as an end product. Although I can’t imagine it would be very satisfying or enjoyable to write about something which you are not passionate about.
I’m really hoping that I did not just ramble through this, and I’m especially hoping that I did not just make a list of thoughts without giving an explanation for each one. If so, that would mean that I am still no better than I was in my Spongebob days when I would just list off incoherent sentences for my teachers to decipher. If so, I apologize. This is the first essay that I’ve written since learning that I know close to nothing about what an essay is and realizing that most “essays” I’ve handed in in the past have just been formulaic ways of proving that I paid attention in class all semester.
I am also realizing now that what Spongebob handed in wasn’t too far off what most schools actually look for in an essay. Although he was just listing off random things not to do at a stoplight, such as “making a sandwich, karate chopping the tv, and shootin’ the breeze with the mailman” if he just added “because” after each example he listed, along with a reason why someone shouldn’t do that certain behavior at a stoplight, then he would have produced a typical high schooler’s essay, even if not a very exciting one.

Writing and Experience

Given that I don’t think I have a full understanding of what an essay is yet I might want to focus this post on examining creative writing in general as opposed to just the essay. More specifically I would like to know how some people can grow to become so good at writing. a big fascination of mine for a while has been the lives of great writers and what it could be that they do in their every day lives that gives them the ability to write so wonderfully.
There are many writers who’s lives outside of writing are great stories in and of themselves. I am almost finished with a book about Ernest Hemingway’s life and, although I haven’t read much of his writing, I can say that his life outside of writing makes for some of the most entertaining storytelling I’ve ever read. I know that a lot of his books were based on his own experiences which would explain why he could tell such exciting stories, but it doesn’t explain why he was able to write them in a style that so many people loved. I haven’t yet read anything in the book that explains how this style of writing came about, just where he gets the ideas for his stories.
Another commonality I have found between a lot of great writers is substance abuse. My biggest concern about this is that, as much as I would love to be a great writer, I would love to be able to do it while also abstaining from alcohol or heavy drugs. I found myself about six months ago obsessed with reading about the lifestyle of Hunter S. Thompson, the man credited with the creation of “gonzo journalism”, who has written a few highly acclaimed books of his own experiences. His days would begin with waking up at 3 in the afternoon and then spending the next nine hours drinking whisky and ingesting large amounts of cocaine, then writing from midnight until 6 in the morning. Whenever I read about a writer who consumes a lot of drugs and alcohol, I always find myself wondering if it is the drugs and alcohol that gives them the ability to write so well, or if the situation is more that whatever is inside of that person that gives them the gift of great writing is the same thing that drives them towards drugs and alcohol. The drugs and alcohol aren’t just involved in the creation of the writing of essays and novels, almost every great songwriter who’s life I’ve read about has been involved with them at one point or another.
One example of drugs influencing songwriting that I found interesting is the Beatles and their use of marijuana, a combination that is so significant that the day that Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to the drug, August 28, 1964, is considered a turning point in musical history. After that date the band released all of their most acclaimed material. From 1965-1969 they produced 8 albums, all of which were included on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums ever. Now this does not mean that smoking marijuana is the soul reason for this, it could also be that they were very young in 1964 and as they matured, naturally their writing would mature with them. But it is very interesting how much their creativity took off after being introduced to drugs.
But aside from those examples, I still believe that most of what contributes to the ability to write creatively is to have done things that are worth writing about, not only does doing things give you something to say but I imagine it gives your brain the release of the right chemicals that allow for creative thoughts to flow. And I know that with a lot of writers, specifically Dr. Seuss, who’s writing is the majority of what I like to read in my spare time, have fictional tales that are closely related to real life events whether they be events that were in the news at the time the person was writing or events that happened to the person. Much of Dr. Seuss’ body of work consists of stories reflecting the biggest events that were going on around the world during the time they were published.
Throughout writing this piece, I have realized that I could be wrong in assuming that there is one thing that contributes to great writing. I have been reading back through articles about certain authors and am beginning to get the idea that there isn’t anything that all of them have in common. A good number of them used drugs or alcohol at one point in their lives and a large proportion of them did very exciting things, but not all of them did both. There isn’t one specific thing that all the authors did except for write.
It seems now that the one secret to great writing is to write a lot, which feels like a very obvious and cliché answer, but it’s the only conclusion I am able to draw after reviewing the lifestyles of so many great authors. The only thing each and every one of them had in common is that they wrote a lot. None of them seemed to pump out “The Great American Novel” in a first draft or be able to craft a bestseller in one day. They all would just dedicate a ton of time to their writing.
This conclusion does still leave me wondering though. I’ve been in a few writing classes where it is clear who produces the best work, and it is usually someone who doesn’t know that they are a great writer and also someone who doesn’t enjoy writing a whole lot in their free time. These same writing classes have had people who are incredibly passionate about writing and aren’t able to produce very good stories. Some people are just born incredibly gifted when it comes to creativity and others are born lacking that gift.