I absent-mindedly went on twitter this evening and noticed that ‘Orwell’ was trending. It turns out today is his 110th birthday. So I decided – at the risk of inflating expectations about my theoretical ability to deliver thought-provoking naturalistic prose – to revisit his essay Why I Write in the hope that it will help to outline some of the reasons behind my own incipient attempt at becoming a writer (whatever this means).
The opening passages – a brief account of George’s ‘non-literary years’ (before the age of twenty-five) when he tried to abandon the idea of being a writer ‘with the consciousness that [he] was outraging [his] true nature’ – provide a sense of heady relief, at least to anyone worrying about a Failure to Launch in this respect. This is in view of the recently-extended time-frame in which one can be considered ‘young’, a phenomenon, endorsed by sociologists, whereby changing conditions – the move towards information-based economies, more (and more) education, advancements in sexual and reproductive healthcare, science, technology etc. – have led to what’s known as the ‘prolonged incubation period’ and a new generation of emerging adults rising phoenix-like from their parents’ couches, long after they hit twenty-one. Not least is the onwards-and-upwards global trend in life expectancy: while Orwell died in London from complications of tuberculosis at the age of forty-six, I have a reasonable chance of living till at least eighty-two (and just had a BCG vaccination) i.e. in all likelihood it doesn’t matter that my own ‘non-literary years’ have lasted a bit longer.
Back to WIW. Orwell posits there are ‘four great motives for writing’. He notes: ‘[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’. Or she. They are:
I. Sheer egoism – a shared trait that earmarks writers as inherently ‘vain, selfish and lazy’ and, on more flattering note, as members of a ‘gifted, wilful’ minority…determined to live their own lives to the end’.
The first part rings uncomfortably true. For one thing, benign narcissism is a flaw I have been found guilty of in the past as a repeat offender. Exhibit A: a compilation of passages from old diary entries (pending), written mostly in my early twenties, in which I chronicle the litany of thoughts, feelings and pulsing anxieties that were occupying my attention at the time, complete with arresting headings like ‘Tonight I flossed’.
But egoism itself is not always a bad thing, as George takes pains to point out. And there are plenty of other career options out there for the vain and self-centred besides being a writer. Take doctors, for example, who bathe in ego-gratification on a daily basis like pigeons in a dirty fountain. Or politicians. Or armchair human rights activists ranting about politicians. In WIW, all of these are lumped into a tainted but still enviable category: “the whole top crust of humanity”.
I’m not exactly sure what to make of this unashamed elitism. Orwell obviously doesn’t really think that all writers are gifted, or wilful, or leading independent lives; this is made blatant in another essay from the same collection called Politics and the English language in which he derides modern writing (as of 1946), and writers, and laments the decay of linguistic and professional standards that has corrupted and devalued the whole enterprise.
Which brings me to the second motive, on which he seems to place a relative amount of importance.
II. Aesthetic Enthusiasm – a sensibility (‘very feeble in a lot of writers’) derived from ‘perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement…’ and ‘the desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed’.
This one resonates strongly with my own neglected inclinations. At least since university I have felt compelled, sometimes obsessively, to document and describe various aspects of everyday life, as if it’s passing me by when I don’t.
This was problematic as a medical student. In lectures my mind would wander incessantly off-topic, either stuck on the poetic sound of nomenclature (amaurosis fugax…leishmaniasis…fixed flexion deformity…) or leaping flea-like from rote-learnt scientific fact to fact to abstract – sadly, irrelevant – metaphors. During nervous forays into hospital I was routinely struck by moments of sensory overload (N.B. mostly not because of all the beauty in the external world). I spent lunchtime talks, bedside tutorials, ward rounds – almost every opportunity for structured learning – in a lethargic daze, tormented by a vague but insistent sense that my energies would be better spent jotting down notes on aforementioned moments, like a fly-on-the-dilapidated-public-hospital-wall, rather than struggling to stay physically upright and maintain a bare pretense of clinical interest and budding professionalism.
Unfortunately, instead of acting on these inclinations, I ended up stuck on the aesthetic/practical fence with a stethoscope slung half-heartedly around my neck. And so they never translated into anything substantive, or readable – at least not by anyone except myself.
III. Historical impulse – the ‘desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity’.
For my own purposes, this motive has two dimensions: one is personal – the drive to make sense of the past and one’s ‘earlier selves’ and the flickering mass of neural connections that operate like a filter or series of lenses through which one interprets and experiences the world; the other is historical in a wider sense, which I think is the way Orwell intends it.
In this vein, the act of writing can represent an attempt at subjective honesty or authenticity at the one end, and at collating and making sense of facts, or more objective truths, at the other. Both aim to produce writing that is transparent, as clear as possible – that is, if it is to qualify, in Orwell’s eyes, as ‘good prose’ (i.e. windowpane-like).
IV. Political purpose – ‘the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after’.
I don’t see how this last one could be taken to cover all prose writing, despite the qualifier that the word ‘political’ is being used in ‘the widest possible sense’. Maybe it would be more appropriate to label it an ideological purpose, underpinned by a certain belief-system or value-set? But is all writing even ideological?
In any case, the idea that the more conscious one is of one’s bias – political, ideological, what have you – ‘the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity’ is an invaluable one. For the record, I should note that my own general bias has pluralist, feminist, constructivist, social-democratic and cosmopolitan threads, bundled together into a naturalistic worldview in which death = the end of the line.
One last thought.
WIW has its limitations. This beginner’s post is not meant to be an exhaustive list of reasons but a starting point for thinking about the overall purpose of writing, or of certain forms of writing – namely, blogging.