June 01, 2013
As I was reminded during Hurricane Isaac, writing gets harder with the threat of disaster. It’s trickier to finish an essay, story or book review when you’re thinking, instead, about the speed of the wind, the strength of your roof, the age of the neighborhood trees.
But worsdmiths who need a role model for writing under pressure can always find one in George Orwell, an English novelist whom many of us met through assigned readings of “Animal Farm” or “1984” back in high school.
Orwell didn’t see much money from his novels until shortly before his death in 1950. To make ends meet, he wrote essays and reviews for newspapers and magazines, often filing them while London was bombed by the Germans during World War II.
All of this came to mind last month when a one-volume copy of Orwell’s diaries arrived at my desk a few days before Isaac hit Louisiana. The new American edition of the diary, just published by Liveright, brings to a general audience a collection of writings that wasn’t widely available before.
I didn’t read much during the storm — a power outage and two kids directed my energies elsewhere — but the presence of Orwell on the coffee table was a helpful reminder of a man who faced down meaner things than hurricanes and still managed to meet his deadlines.
In these cooling nights of late summer, with the electricity restored and my reading lamp back in commission, I’ve been dipping into Orwell’s diary entries from the war years, when Nazi planes darkened London’s skies.
“Short air raid alert about 11:30 this morning,” he writes on March 15, 1942. “No bombs or guns. The first time in 10 months that I had heard this sound. Inwardly rather frightened, and everyone else evidently the same, though studiously taking no notice and indeed not referring to the fact of there being a raid on until the All Clear had sounded.”
A few days later, he looks toward a flower bed and spots a hopeful sign of continuity in the midst of conflict. “Crocuses now full out,” he writes. “One seems to catch glimpses of them dimly through a haze of war news.”
Even in the best of times, Orwell faced troubles that would have kept lesser men away from the writing desk. He was sick with tuberculosis much of his life, the disease eventually cutting his life short at age 46. Before his death, he wrote most of “1984” in bed.
After the war, when his health allowed, Orwell enjoyed puttering around Barnhill, a farm in coastal Scotland. I especially like a diary entry from Sept. 11, 1947, in which he mixes thoughts of his writing projects with a list of things to do around the homestead. It’s a perfect example of the way that writers tend to daydream themselves away from crafting sentences to think about more pleasant things. “Spread manure,” Orwell tells himself. “Prune rose bushes.”
Orwell’s list suggests a man keenly aware that life is brief, trying to squeeze as much living as he can into an autumn day. As his diaries prove, Orwell made the most of the time he had.