George Packer on the art and danger of writing

One thing I love thinking and reading about is the act of writing. I told my spouse recently that I first and foremost prefer to identify myself as a writer, and as one who struggles to overcome the tyranny of the blank page (what writer doesn’t, really?), hearing other writers describe their process, their thinking, their struggles, or their advice is very cathartic and encouraging to me.

So, all that to say, I cannot recommend George Packer’s recent acceptance speech for his Hitchins Award, published by The Atlantic, enough. I wish I could just copy and paste the whole damn thing here, because it is so good. But I’ll restrain myself, direct you to the full text, and just pull out a couple of good parts here.

For starters:

Politicians and activists are representatives. Writers are individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another. They don’t write as anyone beyond themselves.

And this:

Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.

And, finally, his closing:

Writers in other times and places have faced harder enemies than a stifling orthodoxy imposed across a flimsy platform. I have no glib answers to ours. What I can say is that we need good writing as much as ever, if not more. It’s essential to democracy, and one dies with the other. I know that many readers hunger for it, even if they’ve gone quiet. And I know that many writers and editors are still doing this work every day. Meanwhile, whatever the vagaries of our moment, the writer’s job will always remain the same: to master the rigors of the craft; to embrace complexity while holding fast to simple principles; to stand alone if need be; to tell the truth.

The art of writing, of crafting ideas and then putting them on paper, is indispensable in a democracy, and its increasingly fraught and under attack from both ends of the political spectrum. Packer captures it perfectly in his speech. Go read the whole thing.


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