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.
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 accept 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.