George Orwell: Why I Write – Vickie Lester: Isn’t that fascinating?

George Orwell Marrakech 1939
George Orwell Marrakech 1939

I, Vickie Lester, am writing this semi-confessional in a place whose inhabitants are often thought to exist in bubble; living in a state of dreamy incomprehension brought about by mild weather and consistently brilliant blue skies, denizens of La-La Land… If this is a bubble, it’s clearly made of titanium. It is a center of creativity, and on a spectacularly visceral—in the dark—with glimmering lights—seen around the world—level. We (and by that I mean, me…make that, I ) may not be particularly literary, but we do know how to spin a yarn.

I write to entertain, and because the actual act is, excuse me, intensely pleasurable. I beg to differ with Mr. Orwell on, Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.

However, read what he has to say — it’s fascinating — and mostly true.

George Orwell: Why I Write.

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. They are:

(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.

The problem of language is subtler and would take too long to discuss. I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it. Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies 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. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.


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  1. November 5, 2013

    I agree with so much of this–the last two paragraphs, especially.

  2. November 5, 2013

    Phenomenal resources at the BBC!

  3. November 6, 2013

    Dearest V
    Orwell, a very interesting character and – you will like this – a model for a character in a novel (in fact ‘The Longest Novel In The English Language’).
    He is one of the chief originals of Erridge in Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance To The Music Of Time’.
    Mr Powell is also very good on reasons to write…
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • November 6, 2013

      Shocking confession, I have attempted to read that trilogy many times… Maybe now that I’m older?

      • November 6, 2013

        Dearest V
        Bad news… it’s actually a dozen novels, republished most commonly as a quartet.
        And yes, you guessed, it is The Dandy’s ‘favourite’ novel.
        You can of course cheat and read Hilary Spurling’s novel length concordance!
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

      • November 6, 2013

        So each one of those suckers from the library contains four volumes… Okay. Over Christmas break, because it it your favorite work, I will read it!

  4. November 6, 2013

    Man, this excerpt form Orwell is laser-sharp, both concise and precise. I love that he begins seeming to chide writers for their egotism, then quickly elevates them to a superior class of genuine individuals…

    • November 6, 2013

      I’m very curious to read Anthony Powell’s novels (Dance to the Music of Time) now with the knowledge from the Dandy that one of the protagonists is based on Orwell… So interesting…

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