“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.”
One of the most clever and socially engaged English writers of the twentieth century, George Orwell’s work included fiction, poetry, literary criticism and polemical journalism, and it was characterized by his opposition to a totalitarian regime, his belief in democratic socialism and his awareness of social injustice.
In his 1946 essay Why I Write, he chronicles his journey to becoming a writer.
“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.
His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.
It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”
He begins by examining his motivation for putting his truth and art on paper:
“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.”
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
4. 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.
“It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature—taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult—I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.”
And maybe we are, if only, for consciously using our historical privilege and our ability to look back and remember. And maybe we will be, if after looking back with cultural and artistic empathy, we look forward in truth and curiosity.
There is no greater way to fully understand a writer or an artist than by knowing and studying his/her wider context (outer world) and his/her personal motivation (inner world).
What is your context and what are your motives? Time for a writer’s self-check?
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