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Archive for the ‘1946’ Category

Orwell: Why I Write

The following is based on George Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946):

George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer since he was five or six and yet avoided becoming one till he was 24 and did not firmly make up his mind to be one till 33. In the end he found he had to write.

In the 1700s he might have become a Christian minister:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But he was born to evil times when evil men, like Hitler and Stalin, wanted to rule the world. Democracy was disappearing. After fighting in the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1937 he made up his mind. He had two talents: he was good with words and he was good at facing unpleasant facts. So from 1936 onwards he used those talents to fight against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

He says there are five motives that drive every writer to one degree or another; they are always there no matter how weak:

  1. To earn a living: Journalists are more concerned about money than serious writers, but even serious writers must eat.
  2. Sheer egoism: “Look at me!” Wanting to be remembered after you die, wanting to bend your life to your will instead of going with the flow like most people do after age 30. Writers share this in common with artists, scientists, businessmen, etc. Writers do not like to admit to it, but it is often their strongest motive.
  3. Aesthetic enthusiasm: the love of words and their beauty, of putting them together in the right way. Even textbook writers feel this. “Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free of aesthetic considerations.”
  4. Historical impulse: wanting to see things as they are and get the truth out.
  5. Political purpose: wanting to change the world by changing people’s ideas of the kind of society they should work for. Even “art for art’s sake” is a political stand.

In a more peaceful age the political motive would have barely mattered. As it was he found he wrote his best stuff when the political motive was uppermost. Anger at injustice drove him more than anything else:

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.

And yet as a serious writer he wanted to write well, to create art. It was not always easy to do both at the same time.

But in the end, as much as he might try to make sense of it, he says wanting to write is a mystery:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

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