|Photo by the Author (M J Zander)
Image description: a small stack of books, one with cursive writing on it.
There’s a great misconception that writing is easy; that all writers do, is make shit up and then write it down. If only it were that easy. Writing is demanding, both physically and mentally. It is a brutal, unforgiving bastard, that at times mocks you and makes you feel worthless and defeated. So you ignore it, or you try to, but as George Orwell wrote “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…”
Orwell writes “I think there are four great motives for writing…they exist in different degrees in every writer…” Narrowing it down to just four, is a rather brave (or foolish) thing to attempt. However, his reasons are so infallible and intrinsic that even in the epoch of social media and instant messaging, these four core motives are as relevant now, as they were in 1946, when Orwell wrote his essay.
The first one Orwell lists is “sheer egoism.” As much as I’d like to deny this, it is as Orwell writes, “humbug to pretend this is not a motive.” There’s a drive in all of us to be recognized for something; to be acknowledged as being better than others at this something. Competition is an instinct, and a rather important one. Without it nothing would ever move forward. It is selfishness at its finest. Writers, musicians and artists of all media tend to have an overabundance of this trait. It isn’t because we are arrogant jerks, or insecure souls looking for validation, it’s because we feel the need to contribute, even if that contribution is an unwelcome one. It’s the fight against losing who we are and conforming to the masses.
The next one is “Aesthetic enthusiasm.” It’s the beauty of words, but also the ugliness. It is the means in which we communicate and “the desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable.” What one person finds value in, another is certain not to. However, the value in that thing, is in the way it is communicated, and that is where aestheticism comes in. Most people can recognize that a book is well written even if they don’t care for the story. I will admit, even as an English major, I don’t like Shakespeare, but I’d give anything to be able to write like him. For me, there is something magic, not just in words alone, but in the way they are linked together. The blending of words is very much like the blending of notes or paint; too many of the same become redundant, too many opposites and you create cacophony. There’s a fine line between the two, which shifts with every piece one writes. There is no magic formula. Writing is a way of corralling your wild ideas and training them to become an organized group of thoughts, at the same time training yourself how to think about and express those thoughts.
The third on Orwell’s lists is “historical impulse.” Orwell states it is the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts…” But if facts are subjective, and they are, then how can we ever determine what is true? Well written historical accounts are more likely to be taken as factual, even if they aren’t. Historical “facts” are constantly being proved or disproved. What is the truth on one side, maybe propaganda on the other. It may be the desire to record things as we believe they are, rather than the “desire to see things as they are.” Writing is what forces you to look at events objectively, if for no other reason than to find your own truth.
Orwell’s fourth and final motive is one he applies in, “the widest possible sense,”and that is “Political purpose.” Here is where things get interesting. Orwell states it is the “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” What Orwell argues is that art and politics can’t be separated. Nothing inspires creativity like injustice.
Writing is, as Orwell states, “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness…(and) by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have outgrown it.” So why do writers subject themselves to this self inflicted torment? Perhaps it is the search for our own understanding, or the desire for self-preservation by what we leave behind. Maybe it is the essential aspiration to be heard and recognized. Or maybe, just maybe we are “driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
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