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Monday, July 02, 2012
Why I Write: George Orwell's Four Motives for Creation
Brain Pickings Weekly
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"Sheer egoism... Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity."
Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, would have been 109 this week. Though he remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest short-form feats is the 1946 essay Why I Write (public library) – a fine addition to other timeless insights on writing, including Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.
Orwell begins with some details about his less than idyllic childhood – complete with absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness – and traces how those experiences steered him towards writing, proposing that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer's drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing, most of which extrapolate to just about any domain of creative output.
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own – but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to 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.
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