Song, Story, and Orwell

by Rebecca Robins

This week I was reading a review of a book discussing protest songs, and as the reviewer, Sean Wilentz, tried to explain why one song soared while another failed, I was struck by how the same sort of distinctions apply to memoir. Why one soars and why another doesn’t.

The difference? The songs that worked were the ones that came from those who spoke directly from the experience of their soul. The ones that didn’t? They spoke from somewhere outside themselves.

Sometimes the most difficult thing is to know what you really want to say, not what you think you should have thought or said, but just flat out, the truth of your experience, how you faced it, what you did, how you changed, or didn’t.

George Orwell is one of our best non-fiction writers. Some of his most effective writing came out of his time working in India and Burma where he found himself involved in situations in which the powerless were treated in cruel and unjust ways. Many of his essays of this time were his protest songs.

His technique is worth studying if you are serious about working in non-fiction or memoir in particular. He used himself: his sense of history, his narrative commentary, and his reflections to tell the truth of how an intelligent civilized compassionate man, in this instance Orwell, confesses to being reduced to an angry embittered soul. In this way he became the narrator whose very presence in the story was the indictment. I was there.

At his best, Orwell’s narrating self knows that his obligation is to use himself, as it should be yours, to make clear what he felt and did and how he changed. If he loses track of who he is, if he falls back on rationalizations and old assumptions and stops looking clearly and honestly at each situation he finds himself in, he will no longer be writing from his soul. The story will stop telling his truth. It will no longer soar .

In the same way, it will be your experience, your perspective and your personality, along with the discipline to keep it fully present on the page, that will lead you to the truth of your story.