As a young child, he believed he would grow up to become a writer; then, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four, he tried to “abandon this idea,” but knew that by doing so, he would be “outraging” his “true nature.”
What is the ‘true nature’ to which Orwell refers, and does his sense of what it is to be a writer have any bearing on you if you want to write? Can we not think of everyone, no matter their self-described ‘true nature,’ possessing the potential to become a writer?
I happen to think we can, but by believing this, I am like a salmon attempting to spawn upstream, because I am controverting the deeply-held societal myth that all writers are, of necessity, neurotic; that there is no way to write and, at the same time, live a simple, sane existence, since we are not accustomed to hearing stories about people who are stable who are also writers. To be a writer is to be at best ‘colorful’; at worst, suicidal.
Unfortunately, self-descriptions such as Orwell provides do nothing to dispel this cultural myth, and his fame and historical influence reinforces how ‘right’ he must be. His self-description of his formative years includes a glimpse into his family and social life; he considered himself “somewhat lonely,” with the lonely child’s habit of creating stories.
He felt “isolated and undervalued.” His self-description is laced with admissions of behavior amounting to neuroticism, in which his facility with language, combined with a “power of facing unpleasant facts,” granted him entrance to his own private world in which he could “get his own back” for his “failure in everyday life.”
When he says “[a]ll writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” unfortunately, Orwell feeds into negative stereotypes about writers, while at the same time sounding pretty interesting, because who doesn’t want to be thought of as mysterious?
I’m trying to remember if reading the following would have put me off writing when I was a teenager; on some level, it does sound almost oddly glamorous, with its tone of willful rebellion against that which we are raised to think of as boring ‘normal’ behavior. To a certain mindset, the implied romanticism of giving way to something outside your conscious control, a force larger than you, must have a subconscious appeal as we form our own writer’s identity:
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.
Orwell’s interest, from a very early age, was in description and detail. As he matured, he found his ‘voice’ through the process of becoming politicized. As he grew increasingly aware of the injustices of the world around him, he found an outlet for a skill or talent he possessed even in childhood: his desire to write with an attention to descriptive detail (a desire he described as a “compulsion from outside”).
It’s my belief that becoming a writer is a process of development. We aren’t born thinking of ourselves as writers; instead, we form an idea of who we are, and what our innate tendencies are, and only then respond to positive or negative reinforcement from the outside world.
To become a writer, we consciously and unconsciously compare ourselves to those who have come before us, so what we hear, read, and believe about writers influences our perception of ourselves as writers. Do we fit this mold or not? We use the experiences and words of those who came before us to shape our vision of ourselves, and the life we see ourselves living. But Orwell says that if we try to escape from these earliest influences altogether, we will kill the impulse to write.
He lists four basic impulses that underlie our motivation to become writers, and although Orwell’s focus is on writers of prose, I think this list is interesting (not that I agree with all of it) and might hold true no matter what kind of writing you do. At any rate, it’s good to ask yourself these questions so as to know your own motivations for wanting to write.
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.
- Sheer egoism: It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one . . . There is the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.
- Aesthetic enthusiasm: Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement . . . desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
- Historical impulse: Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
- Political purpose: Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction.
Finally, Orwell says that our nature is attained when we are ‘first adult,’ and that these impulses must ‘war against one another,’ fluctuating from person to person and from time to time. Even if you’re writing fiction that isn’t particularly political, I think Orwell’s perspective on what creates our writing ‘nature’ continues to have relevance for writers today; perhaps even more relevance, since mainstream writing has taken on an inherently political tone, and more and more published work is non-fiction. Once again, Orwell was ahead of his time, it seems.
- Ever Wanted to Smell Like Animal Farm? Now You Can. (bellasugar.com)
- The Mystical Gnome’s Guide to Why Do You Write: Writing Tip #5 (mjcache.wordpress.com)
- Orwell’s 1984; The Unfinished Story (nozomimagine.com)
- Orwellia (poumista.wordpress.com)
- Thanks, George (bengwalchmai.wordpress.com)
- “Dear Mr. Orwell – thanks for the book!” (sunnyromy.wordpress.com)
- “Outright Barbarous” (careersuicideblog.wordpress.com)
- Top Ten George Orwell Quotes (scriblinmind.wordpress.com)