What Orwell wrote about why I write

Orwell

With what I assume is a lassitude of realisation, in 1946, that once the war was won, the reality of lost empire, depleted wealth, and towering national debt, George Orwell wrote a short essay, ‘Why I Write’. It appears quite plain and almost too simple to be an Orwell exposition of anything, but in his own unassuming way he revealed quite a bit about himself, and, uncannily, about my own motivations.

To drown in his almost inconsolable meditations about his own loneliness as a child and into his thirties, you will have to read the essay yourself; I’m sure it is reproduced online somewhere and freely accessible.

I am interested in the four categories of motivation he proposes for writers: ego, aesthetics, impulse, and politics. It is admirable in itself to pick these apart. I perceive a lot of overlap between the qualities he mentions for each of these categories.

Ego

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.

What can I say. I suspect the whole of this applies to me, with different emphases at different times, and a continuously strong strain of the willfulness Orwell mentions.

Mostly I have never regarded myself as particularly self-centred, but I have often been accused of that as consequence of shuttering myself away from partners and acquaintances, but especially by those who think I snub them personally when I refuse social invitations to mix with people I already know will irritate me. It doesn’t help that I am usually proven right when I do consent against the warning of my instincts to attend some tedious function or gathering that does not invite me in an immediate and visceral sense.

Æsthetics

Orwell has more to say than ‘Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed’, but that is the part I think applies to me, and that informs, in particular, my writing about film and television, which would probably be regarded as ‘vulgar writing’ by ‘serious’ art critics.

Nevertheless, there is a part of me that just demands I share with the æther, if no one else, any strong impression left on me by an experience not too private to put into words.

There is also the matter of the craft. I just love paper, fountain pens, and the feel of making them meet to make them express something of me. And I love fonts, the business of spacing and margins, layout and presentation, and even the illustrative practices that come with publication. I consider myself fortunate to have been paid for some years to do all these things in combination, and I dabble in them still with every opportunity I get. I liken it to playing the piano, or painting, neither of which I do well, but have dabbled in, as most boys with a proper British bourgeois education have. I can tell you without looking, for instance, that I typed this in Times Europa TL Std at 12pts on a leading of 18pts, that my left margin is 40mm, and the right is 20mm. These are minutiæ that other people don’t pay attention to at all, but that are of great interest to me, and give me æsthetic pleasure.

Impulse

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

That’s all Orwell says about this category, making me think it was his strongest drive, sublimated as his political passion. To some extent this also drives me as either a superior political motive, or as an adjunct to my sense of justice and fairness.

I suspect that one of my strongest early influences was the perception of grotesque injustice in being punished quite cruelly for the crimes of WWII Germany. Not because I was guilty, or because some people did not deserve punishment, but just because people are innately cruel when not rocked back on their heels from time to time with the consequences of bullying others. I have worked, at times, to correct that lack of consequence and to teach people the feeling of being rocked back.

However, the sense of injustice also led me to switch my major focus in an innately acute interest in history from a contemplative fascination with the ancients to a much more modern outlook. First to understand for myself the causes and effects of the great wars of the 20th century, which stretch back into the 18th century, taking in the totality of the Enlightenment, but also the speculative, coming impacts of a time that has not yet been. And then to tell anyone I could force to listen that they were wrong in their own conventional conceptions of how they and their societies came to be.

Over time I could not help but regard social and cultural phenomena as inextricably linked to history, as with political economy. That remains true today; I will reflexively look for the materialist historical roots of events and attitudes in deeds, artefacts, and phenomena.

Orwell doesn’t say it as explicitly as I almost expected, but there is also an impulse that works on a much more immediate and physical level, which is the feeling of unease and queasiness I feel if I have not written anything for some days. Christopher Hitchens referred to that feeling several times in his career, making me think I am far from alone in this compulsion. I doubt it is a necessary precondition for good writing, but rather as a manifestation of dealing with thought and a drive to do something with conclusions and to seek a temporary closure for a line of thinking.

Politics

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.

I still have the arrogance to think I can make some change to the world, however small and insignificant, by just standing against the numb consensus on important matters that seems to continually stifle all the good ideas about what we should strive for, and what is possible at all.

A good number of my essays are intensely political without necessarily striving to be. But the politics in these essays are all about rejecting what I perceive as unjust, delusional, or deceptive rather than as an imposition of a personal ideology or a partisanship aligning me with a great movement. I suspect I am not suitable to be a party man of letters because I find it impossible to hold a particular line for all things under all conditions. Instead I am a fickle, eclectic sort, still doing as I did when I was a little boy, and picking from all the beckoning options, not just the quarantined and discrete sets.

I see Hunter Thompson in that vein, and probably like him still as a storyteller because he has no allegiance to anything but his own mania, drug-addled or not.

Orwell talks about style, giving the obligatory sermon about avoiding ornate language that I don’t sympathise with as much as most other people. The language is there to be used, with its full lexicon, and perhaps even the ambition to extend it. Intellectual masturbation about stripped bare language and terse sentences is just a fetish that has currency for no more than ideas about fashion in our era. In previous times, including those of Shakespeare’s exemplary diction, ornateness of expression was almost mandatory. And it will be again. Fashion, not truth, or even utility, dictate these things.

My own practice meanders between styles. I am a practitioner of the purple prose Orwell decries, though I often recognise that when I write too much like that I am no longer saying anything worth the trouble. I am told that I am at my most entertaining when I use my extended vocabulary to sermonise, but that I am at my most readable when I write for idiot children. I have trouble distinguishing between the two modes in my essays.

Style strikes me as a choice of clothes that does not quite invalidate substance, though I do have reservations sometimes, as if scrutinising a man wearing a red shirt with purple trousers and brown shoes: how could you not be suspicious of such sartorial gregarity?

… 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.

I have done some estimates, and I suspect I write close to a million words every year, and have done so since the early 1990s. That suggests to me a total output of around 20 million words in 20 years, of which, perhaps a third were paid for, and maybe a quarter were commercially published. I suspect that some part of the published output, and a large proportion of the rest, is self-indulgent crap not fit as a public offering. In that regard it is impossible to disagree with Orwell.

What seems strangely absent from Orwell’s treatment is the practice of writing, in the sense of rehearsing the craft, and the encroachment on personal privacy that is inevitable when you tell stories.

About the former I suspect that without regular practice, writing becomes harder, less pleasurable, and inevitably less clear. I regard reading widely as absolutely necessary for writing, and maybe a major motivation for doing it in the first place. It is time consuming, and eats your energy. Sometimes your soul as well.

The reason I have not yet seriously pursued fiction is that it requires that I reveal more of myself than I am comfortable with. I don’t know how to do fiction any other way, and I have read enough commentary from authors to know most of them feel the same way. Hemingway comes to mind: ‘Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.’ Or words to that effect. Except that I think bleeding is actually easier than what I would really have to do to write the kind of fiction I would regard as worth pursuing.

I may yet do it anyway. I would like to be able to tell stories that straddle entertainment and something worth saying the way le Carré used to. I’d like to be able to rave as entertainingly as A E van Vogt, Cordwainer Smith, or Alfred Bester. I definitely don’t want any of the conceited or cowardly restraint of the authors who win literary awards; that sort of thing is for salons I stay clear of.

Like Orwell, I think, I am terrified of churning lifeless prose. That is why I am no longer a journalist in any conventional sense. That’s not to say that prose full of life is always good. But I try.