Monday, August 15, 2016

Public Introspection: George Orwell's Why I Write

"From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books." ~George Orwell

This past week I came across a George Orwell quote that went something like this: "I learned from an early age not to believe anything I read in the newspapers." But when I tried to find it, to confirm that my recollection was accurate, I instead stumbled upon an Orwell essay titled "Why I Write" which begins with a similar sequence of words. "From a very early age..."

The essay starts off by explaining the young George Orwell's upbringing, exposure to and interest in poetry, and other factors that led to his taking up an interest in writing. After setting the stage he begins a transition paragraph with this sentence.

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development.

If there are any writers reading this post, I propose that you take some time to reflect on that sentence and mull over the role your own early development played in your becoming a writer. In a broader sense we could all benefit from reflection on that point, how our early development contributed to who we are and what we're doing today.

Orwell then elaborates on the four primary motivations for writing.

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. They are:

(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. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(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. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

The essay continues with a poem that speaks to writers and readers of every age, and then proceeds to dive in to the formative historical events that resulted in his producing the work that established his legacy, Animal Farm and 1984.

The full essay, a relatively short read with long aftereffects, can be found here at Why I Write.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Think about it.

Painting by Brent Kusterman can be found at Lizzard's Gallery in Duluth.

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