Ask most writers why they write – and its a question that gets asked a surprising amount by writers themselves – and you’ll likely get an answer that either draws an awww or a respectful nod. Most of us claim we write for the joy of it, despite also claiming that it is a torturous process we struggle to force ourselves to engage in. The anonymous, oft quoted phrase, ‘I hate writing. I love having written’, is a writers favourite, seeming to many of us to simply be a truism of the craft and needing no attribution except ‘that’s the way it is.’ We – and that’s definitely including me – claim to be driven by the story within, the need to recreate it perfectly on the page and the frustration of our own inadequacies.
Another commonly cited reason is to effect change. To put out something of value that the writer believes the world must hear. I try and avoid books like those and yet…. I don’t want to be responsible for the world and I haven’t come up with any answers other than, be nice. I think people should think for themselves. But I also frequently shake my head in horror when they do. From democracy to the realisation the lunatics are running the asylum, there’s no part of that I want my writing to be held accountable for, but I can’t in fairness deny that I am commenting on this messed up, pissed up, pissed off world with every word I write. I don’t know how not to. Frequently I wish I could master it, because I really don’t want – should I get my dues and become rich and famous – to be rich or famous. Not when I know this messed up, pissed up, pissed off world is going to want to have a little chat with me about my views on it.
And hypocritically, I want more honesty from writers. More credibility in their attempts to address relevant issues or better put, I am assuming a lack of credibility in their attempts. I want them to step up and answer to my beliefs, take a look through my eyes. Perhaps because I am too cowardly to do it myself? I’ll still quibble that I am not offering answers but simply a new vantage point. Yet given the nature of my stories I have to own that its a possibility I might be writing to say something.
I’ve always felt a certain ambiguity with publication. I’m not comfortable with it, with being in the public sphere, however obscure I might remain within it, and yet I still write, I still dream of this career. I can’t let go of the need to say something and to have that something heard.
Why do we write?
George Orwell, a man I listen to ever since he said, It was a bright cold day in April and all the clocks were striking thirteen, believed there were four main reasons. And they aren’t going to make you think ‘awwww’.
The first, egoism. Pure and simple. You write to say to the world, look at me, listen to me. I am worth it.
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.
Interestingly I think its worth remembering that he wrote this essay back in 1946. The second world war had just ended, a time when millions of men and women had given their lives in the defence of their country, their home, but also for strangers, for a belief in duty and the responsibility of every man and woman to fight for the greater good. I can’t help but wonder if he would find the entire world of 2016 acutely selfish? Me-time is a thing, we’re raised to follow our passions and a life well lived is a life of self-fulfilment.
On the other hand every time I read a meme on facebook or twitter I wonder who it serves. My liberal friends preach to their liberal friends about their liberal values – are they genuinely under the impression it might effect some change or merely looking to cement their sense of self righteousness?
The second reason, a little purer. Aesthetic enthusiasm. I do love how he phrases that.
Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
I love this, especially that last line. It’s a truly lovely way to put it and yes, to contradict myself, did draw an ‘aww’, but only half of one as I was already half way through the next line..
The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers..
He does go on to say that he believes beauty or the appreciation of it at least, is present in even the most workmanlike prose. I’ve read his opinions on his peers’ prose, so that’s really, honestly, little comfort.
Third, he calls Historical Impulse.
Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity
This is a little nebulous and I can’t help think owes much to the first, a desire to store oneself up for posterity, certainly our own perception of true facts.
Finally fourth, seeming to my mind to be another subset of the first, Political Purpose.
Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after
Every dictator in the world was likely motivated by reasons three and four. And just in case you do have any last remaining notions of nobility, he sums up..
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. 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. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
So, why do you write? Willing to be a ‘windowpane’ and look upon yourself with the same searing honesty?