Why I Write I
Bill Long 7/27/07
Reflecting on George Orwell (1903-1950)
I didn't realize until I read George Orwell's 1946 essay entitled "Why I Write" and decided to "look him up," that he died at the young age of 46. By the time most prominent authors are just finding their stride, Orwell [His actual name was Eric Arthur Blair] was dead. He is now regarded by many as the premier English-language essayist of the mid-20th century.
I have decided to use the occasion of my 2800th (or so) essay to answer the question that many have asked me over the years since I began posting these essays. "Bill, why do you write and, while you are answering this one, why do you write so much?" Reading Orwell's polished, precise and pungent prose on the question of why he wrote helped me crystallize in my mind what I have been trying to do by my writing especially in the last four years. Let me first tell you about Orwell's essay and then apply his insights to my own work.
Three points from Orwell's very readable and brief essay (it is here) stand out for me. First, before saying why he writes he describes the four principal motivations for writing: (1) sheer egotism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. A word on each. By the first he means a desire to "seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death" or to get back at people who have snubbed you along the way. "It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one." Writers are supreme egotists, he thinks, though less interested in money than many others. An aesthetic enthusiasm is the desire to impart beauty by writing. Historical impulse is a desire to set the record straight by telling precisely how things happened. He means "political purpose" in its widest possible sense--to try to push the world in a certain direction, to alter peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. These, to a greater or lesser extent, are what motivate a writer.
Second, in order to understand a writer, you need to understand the factors that shaped him or her and they way s/he reacted to those factors. In Orwell's case, one must understand that for the bulk of his life he spent trying to compose a narrative of himself, a sort of continuous dialogue with himself for at least fifteen years. Third, he reveals what was the principal motivation for him, the motivation that brought focus to his writing--the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s. He says:
"The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism."
That is, when he realized what he truly wanted to do, indeed had to do, every sentence of his writing pulsated from this core. Now we can understand, for example, the delicious ironies and major points of Animal Farm and 1984. Now we understand George Orwell, in a nutshell.*
[*His fourth category, political purpose, means a "desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after." He, apparently, didn't have trouble ending his sentences with prepositions...]
Moving to My Own Motivation(s)
I had the nagging feeling as I was reading Orwell that he was speaking directly to me, much like I believe that good music or books address me personally. It made me think of what moves me in my writing and what I think I am trying to accomplish. I can agree with him that all four of the motivations he lists above are part of what motivate me, but I think it more useful to talk abou the types of writing that I do and then isolate the theme, the thread, that fuels them all. First a word about my general orientation to writing and to knowledge.
I believe deeply, with the poet Robert Frost, that "way leads to way," and that our whole lives are a process of following paths which intersect with other paths, which paths lead us to where we are today. We can spend a lot of time wondering, dreaming, regretting the paths not taken (Frost knows this temptation, for he says, "l shall be telling this with a sigh.."), but ultimately we have chosen or have had chosen for us certain paths.
These are the curbstones between which we have lived our lives. I also believe that knowledge is like the paths of our lives--that one fact leads to another, that it in turn leads to others, and that sooner or later we get ourselves lost in the wonderful complexity, detail and richness of the human and natural symphony all around us. The modern expression of this philosophy is the simple online concept of creating "links." A perfectly happy night for me, for example, is following one link to the next to study things in the way that I want to study them, and to open up the world in new ways. But what I really am about in this "way leads to way" knowledge search is the kind of precision and even eloquence in narration that will make the past live and the present be crystalline in its clarity. I believe that it is better to try to get things right than wrong, that about 95% of life is based on knowledge that can be ascertained, and that by ascertaining and clearly telling this knowledge life can be enriched and the world better understood and appreciated.
Thus, I see myself creating the conditions to allow myself and others (and I need lots of others to help) not simply to sing the narrative of life but to improve life for countless millions of people who don't have what we have. By the privileges we have of being born into the society in which we live, and having had educational and other opportunities we have, we all are debtors to nature--to serve others and improve their lives. I am committed to the notion that improvement of life arises from precise knowledge of the world, knowledge that can be articulated and clearly presented to others.
Let me close this essay (I will need one more to tell you about the four types of writing I do to accomplish this) with a story. In the past week I have put an ad in "Craig's List" for a "Personal Horticultural Guide." I am in a stage in life where I want to learn all the trees, shrubs, plants, lichens, grasses, etc. that I can (Latin names, too, of course), understand the theory of classification/taxonomy, and then try to tell the story of life and my life in a better way because I have been enriched in this way. Well, I have "hired" two guides, though I don't think I will be using them after more than about two "tours." What is significant to me as I work with them and march through marshes or gardens, pointing out things to them is that they say, "Oh, I know what that is but my mind won't bring it back now." I respect the fact that we always don't have every piece of information we want at our fingertips right now, but you can't get away with that in the world I want to live in. Love of learning and yearning for precise and full explanation of things is so much a part of what drives me that I can't stay too long with people as guides who want sympathy because their mind just won't bring words to them. After all, I let them speak in their native tongue.
So, this is my general orientation to writing. It is what fuels my quest for knowlege and writing here. But I need to tell a little more abour four kinds of writing I do--four different ways to get to that precision about what I have just spoken.