The Daily Heller: Why I Write About the Rite of Writing (About Design)

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After the 2016 election, I began rereading George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm. While his Spanish Civil War memoir, Homage to Catalonia, is also an old favorite, over the years I somehow missed out on his brilliantly crafted essays—especially the inspiring 1946 piece “Why I Write.” With PRINT now in its relaunch phase, I figured it is an apt time to reread “Why I Write” and, with temerity and caution, write my own version.

This is not Steven Heller.

While I am making no comparisons here between myself and Orwell, other than the fact that we both write in English (well, I sort of do), I can relate to this from the essay:

So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style … and take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

In this way and for this reason, The Daily Heller column (started at the kind behest of then PRINT editor Joyce Rutter Kaye) is devoted to the rationales, excuses and apologies for why I seek your precious attention for my writing.

I title this piece “Why I Rite” because, for me, writing is a ritual (also, as you might be painfully aware, I love good, bad and atrocious puns). Through the curse of digital black magic, I publish something good or bad, genius or dumb, pretentious or humble, almost every single day of the year (minus weekends and my birthday). Most of the time I have an agenda of sorts; sometimes these are just random musings, discoveries, questions, complaints and suggestions. I love to write about history—particularly the history of design, aesthetics and communication—and meld these subjects with political and social concerns past and present.

Orwell said it better:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past 10 years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

I wish I could say the same; I wish I had his brain and his passion. I write because there are issues and themes I compulsively must address, but also because I can write with a modicum of competence that is missing in other parts of my life.

I did not set out to be a designer. At New York University I was an English major who never really studied English and never finished college either. I left NYU to briefly study illustration at the School of Visual Arts, and was mediocre compared to my classmates (my teacher, Harvey Kurtzman, told me so). So Instead I worked as the art director of different underground newspapers. Long story short: That led me to graphic design and then to an art director (and sometimes anonymous illustrator) position at The New York Times’ OpEd page. This, in turn, triggered an interest in writing about cartoons, illustration and graphic design. Frankly, I always wanted to study and write about tumultuous times in history—the American Revolution, the Civil War, the rise of totalitarianism, the McCarthy Period, etc. I realized there’s a unique way of doing this through the lens of cartoons, illustration and graphic design. Being that I am curious, the acts of writing and researching were and continue to be valuable methods of self-learning. I write so I can discover and then, for a payoff, share what I’ve discovered with others. I am fortunate to have found many outlets for this indulgence (most notably PRINT when it was edited by Marty Fox).

I am compulsive, so I tend to write a lot and usually publish just about everything I write. Sometimes these are well-edited, other times barely touched by skilled editorial hands. What I write about varies within the parameters of the communication arts, which includes media like graphic design, typography, satiric art, illustration, even film and TV; I enjoy covering political and aesthetic movements, styles, symbols and the working lives of individual artists and designers. I’ve written books (large and small), essays, interviews, articles, reviews, prefaces, forewords, addenda, blurbs, you name it. I have done reportage, scholarship, critique and treatments for short video documentaries, some that I have narrated. I’ve written professional profiles, analyses and testimonials, memorials and obituaries for and about individuals I consider important in the respective applied arts fields. My favorite writing assignments were always obituaries for The New York Times because they combined reporting and historical analysis, and documented an individual's achievements for time immemorial. I miss doing them.

Why else do I write? I have insomnia. I cannot sleep. I cannot sleep because I am indefatigably self-critical. I cannot relax because my mind is racing. My ideas get backed up during the day and flow out of me when I should be dreaming—I write notes and on occasion entire drafts (as a rule, they are confusing and worthless). Design is my lens; there is always something to write about through this camera obscura. For those who follow my meanderings, you will already understand; for those who have not, if your patience allows, you will see some logic in all its disjointedness on this relaunched PRINT site.

I hope what Orwell calls the “solid objects and scraps of useless information” that I will write about on a daily basis, sprinkled with my abundant and redundant biases (and arcane language), will be of interest to you. I write for myself but nonetheless with you, the reader, in mind. I am open to critiques (please keep unveiled or veiled insults to a minimum), tips and suggestions. If you read this column as regularly as I write it, you will bear witness to what jingle-jangles in my head—consistent and contradictory—as well as some attempts at experimentation of a kind.

To conclude, I want to briefly explain the process of “How I Write.” First, I fixate on a subject, then I free associate based on some personal knowledge or connection, however slight, to said subject. Next, when research is demanded I’ll take as much time as necessary to find primary, secondary and other sources. Where I can think for myself, I write my thoughts and craft them into a collection of hopefully satisfying sentences, paragraphs and chapters that are usually massaged by wonderful editors (God created editors for the likes of me). If I have nothing original to say, I will quote or paraphrase others. So allow me to end with more from Orwell:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate, for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.

Indeed, I subscribe to them:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word political in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

I couldn’t write it better. But someday, just maybe …