George Orwell

Why I Write

“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.”

What I have learned from the infinite number of writers telling us why they write is that the common entry fee to being a writer seems to be a feeling of ‘It’s my nature.’

Being a writer owes much to the future perfect tense; less about ‘having had written’ than ‘I will have had written.’ A writer is someone who must write because he is a writer.1

To wit, George Orwell’s (1903 – 1950) Why I Write is less about writing or the writer that is Orwell than it is about Orwell as a human who happens always to have been a writer.

Shift, 2018 by Anne Butler. Featured in George Orwell's "Why I Write" in The Examined Life Library. Photograph by Vizz Creative © Anne Butler
“Shift” 2018. A layered porcelain creation by Irish ceramicist Anne Butler. I have to remind myself that Orwell would have written longhand and then by typewriter. How would that process change the nature of writing? Photograph by Vizz Creative.

Unlike Vincent van Gogh and Charles Darwin who sought to become clergy members prior to settling in their respective careers, Orwell felt a literary summons at an early age and heeded the call.

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four 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 books.

[…]

I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in every day life.

Shift, 2018 by Anne Butler. Featured in George Orwell's "Why I Write" in The Examined Life Library. Photograph by Anne Butler © Anne Butler
Close-up of “Shift”, 2018 by Anne Butler. Butler’s ceramic work often echoes abstract shapes from nature and it is curious to see how this close-up suggests eggs, coral, skeletal structures and something about the texture hints it could be a magnified close-up of a microscopic world. Photograph by Vizz Creative.

George Orwell was a writer from desire, talent, temperament, and need; as a child and as an adult. Let’s explore what we mean by that:

Orwell assigns four motives to writing. The first is desire, which Orwell calls “Sheer egoism.” He continues “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.” There is a subconscious egoism happening as well, the desire to play god with characters.

Second is what I call ‘talent’ but Orwell names “aesthetic enthusiasm” which is a love for the beauty of the art. “When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words.” Creating something new, original and beautiful, that is certainly a motivation although it rarely persists alone.2

Shift, 2018 by Anne Butler. Featured in George Orwell's "Why I Write" in The Examined Life Library. Photograph by Anne Butler.
“Shift,” 2018 by Anne Butler. This close-up gives us a sense of how intimate, careful and delicate the work of layering porcelain is, the act of forming each layer is in itself demonstrative of a particular character of artist. I love that the separate sheets are still visible after all the firings. Photograph by Vizz Creative.

Orwell calls “Historical Impulse” the third motive for being a writer, “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” In my mind this seems too contiguous with his fourth reason: political purpose. I would suggest ‘temperament’ as a more suitable third (a desire to make company out of loneliness etc.) but this is Orwell’s ego operating here, not mine.

Finally to number four, the most critical to Orwell:

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. 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.

Number four was the one motivation Orwell lacked as a child (and thus why he wandered from writing) and yet his primary writing motivation as an adult.

How did the child ‘unserious’ writer become the adult political writer? The answer is slowly, cautiously, with much self-awareness but inevitably because, to paraphrase Orwell, ‘one cannot not write about things such as Hitler.’

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.3

Shift and Stack, 2019 by Anne Butler. Featured in George Orwell's "Why I Write" in The Examined Life Library. Photograph by Anne Butler.
“Shift and Stack”, 2019 by Anne Butler. “My working method is intrinsically connected to the act of making” writes Butler of her architectural pieces. The hand of the artist is not only present, it is dominant and inseparable from the aesthetics, Orwell would agree. Photograph by Anne Butler.

Orwell anchors his writer-hood in an emotional attitude that he acquired as a child. Like comedian John Cleese who unsheathed his humor as a way to break the emotional hold of a domineering mother, or children’s author Roald Dahl who, as a child, found writing as a form of freedom.

“We express our being by creating” wrote Rollo May, a sentiment which suits Orwell, it is hard to find anyone more genuine about his subject matter, like his eye-witness account of poverty.

Orwell credits his writing heft to a need to expose totalitarianism, promote democratic socialism and to elevate political writing to an art and his starting point to a feeling of injustice.4

I say, thank goodness he was lonely as a child.

Illustration of George Orwell.