George Orwell Creates a List of the Four Essential Reasons Writers Write

Image by BBC, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Every­one should learn to write well, I used to tell stu­dents in Com­po­si­tion class­es, and I believed it. To write well, in a cer­tain sense, is to become a bet­ter thinker. But writ­ing dif­fers from writ­ing, per­haps, in the same way that walk­ing the dog dif­fers from hik­ing the Appalachi­an trail. There are lev­els of dif­fi­cul­ty. How bad­ly do you need to say some­thing that no one else can—or wants to—say? How bad­ly do you need to push this thing you’ve said into the world?

These are sep­a­rate ques­tions. Some writ­ers real­ly do write for them­selves, some write for mon­ey, though they might also write for free. Some write as a means to oth­er ends, and some require, at all times, an audi­ence. It may be a sex­u­al com­pul­sion or an ani­mal reflex or the only way to get one’s mind right. Or some com­bi­na­tion of the above. As a Jesuit schol­ar I once knew would say, “I’ve nev­er met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” Giv­en the dif­fi­cul­ty of dis­cern­ing why any­one does any­thing, there could be as many mixed motives as there are writ­ers.

That said, I tend to think that every writer who reads George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” sees them­selves in some part of his descrip­tion of his ear­ly life. “I was some­what lone­ly,” he tells us, “and I soon devel­oped dis­agree­able man­ner­isms which made me unpop­u­lar through­out my school­days. I had the lone­ly child’s habit of mak­ing up sto­ries and hold­ing con­ver­sa­tions with imag­i­nary per­sons, and I think from the start my lit­er­ary ambi­tions were mixed up with the feel­ing of being iso­lat­ed and under­val­ued.”

Maybe every­one has such feel­ings, but again it is a ques­tion of degree. Giv­en Orwell’s keen under­stand­ing of the writer’s mind from the inside out, and his dili­gent pur­suit of his work through the most try­ing times, we might be inclined to give him a hear­ing when he claims, “there are four great motives for writ­ing, at any rate for writ­ing prose.” Orwell allows that these motives will be mixed, exist­ing “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.”

But no one whom we might call a writer, Orwell sug­gests, writes sole­ly for util­i­ty or mon­ey. The rewards are too pecu­liar­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal, as are the pains. And the plea­sures too oth­er­world­ly and prac­ti­cal­ly use­less. Orwell begins with one of those psy­cho­log­i­cal com­pen­sa­tions, fame, then pro­ceeds to plea­sure, then to duty to pos­ter­i­ty and, final­ly, to per­sua­sion; the four rea­sons, he says:

(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.

Sure­ly, some­one will sug­gest oth­ers, but it may be that oth­er rea­sons would still fall into these  cat­e­gories. Nei­ther are these motives con­so­nant, “they must war with one anoth­er,” Orwell writes, and read­ers tend to egg the con­flict on, declar­ing his­tor­i­cal mem­oirs as prod­ucts of pure ego­tism or turn­ing their noses up at over­ly “polit­i­cal” nov­els.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, Orwell reveals that he might have done the same, had not cir­cum­stances forced his hand. “In a peace­ful age I might have writ­ten ornate or mere­ly descrip­tive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my polit­i­cal loy­al­ties,” he says. But who lives in a peace­ful age? In any case, we might won­der if he is being com­plete­ly hon­est. “What I have most want­ed to do through­out the past ten years is to make polit­i­cal writ­ing into an art. My start­ing point is always a feel­ing of par­ti­san­ship, a sense of injus­tice.”

Orwell admits that his task “is not easy,” and he offers unspar­ing exam­ples of times when his writ­ing has moved too far toward one end of the spec­trum on which he sit­u­ates him­self. What is instruc­tive about his frame­work for under­stand­ing his moti­va­tions, how­ev­er, is that he has the tools to self-cor­rect. Such self-knowl­edge can serve any­one in good stead. For the writer, who is com­pelled to reveal them­selves over and over, it may be essen­tial.

You can pur­chase your copy of Orwell’s “Why I Write” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

George Orwell Reviews Sal­vador Dali’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy: “Dali is a Good Draughts­man and a Dis­gust­ing Human Being” (1944)

A Map of George Orwell’s 1984

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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