WHY I WRITE: A NOVELIST’S REFLECTION ON THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF GEORGE ORWELL’S PIVOTAL ESSAY
People often ask, and I ask myself on a daily basis, why I have spent more than six decades writing novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays and occasional reportage, continuing to ply this obsession into the cusp of my dotage.
My answer to others and especially to myself never seems quite adequate. Whether I take the high road proclaiming the need to find artistic and aesthetic truth in the human condition or the low road of pure egoism, I sound like either a pompous ass or a mere poseur. I can take refuge in proclaiming it as an addiction or perhaps the need to unburden myself of a brain overstuffed with stories.
While others might review events in unloved childhoods citing loneliness, abuse, cruel parenting, hunger or poverty that forced them out of despair and longing and into some inner fantasy life, I can’t say any of that was true for me. As a child of the Depression I will admit to having a profound shortage of money and a mostly unemployed dad, but I thrived in the bosom of an extended family, never feeling poor, lonely, unloved or abused. I had a perfectly wonderful, joyous upbringing. I’ve also searched through the comments, both written and oral, of other writers for an adequate explanation that might suit my situation without quite sounding my particular gong. That is, until I took a second gander at one of George Orwell’s celebrated essays “Why I Write” (1946).
I give Orwell a rousing round of applause for his wisdom and insight. His “Why I Write” essay is close to my heart and my identity as a writer. When I first read this essay years ago, I did so with passing interest but not without the passionate truth and excitement of discovering a kindred motive. Obviously it needed the perspective and leavening of age and a lifetime of writing to fully understand what he meant and how close he gets to the defining answer I have been searching for.
The Four Reasons
Orwell cites four reasons why he picked up his pen to serve his own writing addiction. Although he did cite the loneliness of his childhood and some of the reasons I have rejected, his very first reason was “Sheer egoism. Desire to be clever, the desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death…It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share these characteristics with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.” I concur enthusiastically with this premise. He made the point, too, that the motivation behind such characteristics has little or nothing to do with money.
His second reason was “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.” I certainly would not take issue with this premise. It has informed my writing since the very beginning of my journey into the power, value and influence of words. Indeed, choosing exactly the right word for exactly the right reasons underlies the veritable architecture of the writer’s art.
His third reason was “Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” His view is absolutely on point. The keyword here is “true” meaning that the serious writer must view events and the surrounding environment through a lens that is as free from distortion as possible and present the facts with a precise and crystal-clear vision. Indeed, it is the writer’s brief to follow this fine line of presentation even in the writing of historical fiction as I have tried to do in my work in that category.
His fourth reason was far more complex and suggests many meanings. He called it “Political purpose–using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense…to alter other people’s 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.”
Since Orwell confessed that his most sacred purpose was to fight injustice, on the surface this thought of his might be interpreted merely to define writing as propaganda. I see that explanation more as an appeal for understanding and a search for truth and life’s meaning.
Writing is a Sacred Calling
A serious writer yearns to create stories that plumb the soul of the human condition, ever searching, ever exploring, through character and plots to create a kind of mirror image of people trying to make sense out of their existence in the brief time they appear on the stage of life. I believe, too, that it is a personal journey, a kind of artistic self-autopsy where the writer wrestles through storytelling to discover for himself the why and how of his own life’s purpose.
What Orwell was saying, as I understand it, was that serious writing is a sacred calling with deep purpose, using the power of the mind and the mysterious gifts of artistry and talent to unravel the eternal puzzle of “what happens next” which is at the heart of the human conundrum. It does sound a bit lofty, but then as any writer worth their salt knows…it is.
Of course, Orwell embellished his thesis with additional chapter and verse, but on the whole, I think he got it right and the older I get, the more I agree with him. It may not exactly answer the question, especially the one posed to oneself. But coming back to his reasons after many, many years from having first read it, my round of applause to him is far beyond an empty gesture.