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Words that last

Excerpt from Proving Up

Words that last

I think it’s important that teachers talk with students about digital writing, including email. Though we toss this off as the most ephemeral of writing, in fact it may be more durable than anything we have written before. Much of what we write will surface years or decades or perhaps centuries from now.

So it’s imortant to think about decorum. There are always people out there who will use what we say against us, and words lifted from their context can seem quite different than we meant them. It’s a good discipline never to be unkind, never to be unjust even in a flippant way, and never to spin deceptions. We should think about these things anyway, but our new technologies give us fresh reasons to think about the wisdom of old platitudes.

And beyond not making ourselves seem churlish or a cad, we can think about what we are creating. Over a lifetime, many of us will create through our texts a very definite persona. Students who have read letters and journals written by great-grandparents have an inkling of what this means. What we have chosen to write will become, for someone in the future, quite likely family relatives, all that we ever were.

Good writers have always known that through writing they are creating a persona. A blog is likely to survive long beyond the blog writer, and thinking about what it is, exactly, that survives can bring us into the enchanted inner chamber of the writer’s life.

Here are the first two paragraphs of George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Pay attention to the persona, the voice:

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. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Here’s what Vivian Gornick says about this:

“The man who speaks these sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in. We believe this about him because the writing makes us believe it. Paragraph upon paragraph--composed in almost equal part of narration, commentary, and analysis--attests to a reflective nature now regarding its own angry passions with a visceral but contained distaste. The narrator records his rage, yet the writing is not enraged; the narrator hates Empire, yet his hate is not out of control; the narrator shrinks from the natives, yet his repulsion is tinged with compassion. . .”

Gornick goes on to make the point that the persona Orwell created in this and other writings varied from reports of what Orwell the actual man was like--the persona was better. The persona was, as she said, “an essence of democratic decency.” She notes that creating the persona was the only way to tell the story, figuring out the voice was figuring out how to tell the story.

Writing for the Ages, Part 1
Writing for the Ages, Part 2
Family History Resources

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/16 at 05:39 AM






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