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Amber Paulen

Why Write? by George Orwell

Even though winter is my least favorite season, reading inside when it’s cloudy and cold out is an intense pleasure (ok, reading anywhere, anytime is a pleasure). This weekend I finished The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and began in on a collection of George Orwell’s essays I picked up in Brussels. Catton’s book was best enjoyed as a finely structured thing, while Orwell’s essays are best for their clarity of mind. His writing runs smooth so that the work of reading and comprehending seems to go unnoticed.

The first essay in the collection is “Why I Write.” Beyond a writer’s childhood influences there are four reasons why Orwell thinks he and other writers write. These reasons are

1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc…. After the age of about thirty [humans] abandon individual ambition—in many cases, indeed, 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.

2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact or one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4. Political purpose—using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. 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.

All this seems sound to me, though number one surprised me twice. Once for the implication, “Egoistic? Me?” and twice for the humor of Orwell’s explanation of egoism as a protective coat for the individual. Near the end of the essay, Orwell writes

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… 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 window pane.

Orwell’s consciousness as a writer, his reflections on his reflections, might be part of what gives his writing such a clear, smooth quality. He is a writer I’m beginning to know, but one that will stay with me for a very long time.

See also Mavis Gallant’s thoughts on why writers write and my thoughts on Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.


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