Last night in making my regular check of my apartment building’s laundry room, which also serves as an occasional repository for tenant’s used and unwanted books, I picked up an aging copy of The Orwell Reader. In thumbing through it this morning, I happened across a short essay written in 1947 and titled, “Why I Write.”
As many of our readers host their own web-based literary enterprises, I felt sharing Mr. Blair’s motives for writing, and his insights in the mind of a writer to be an appropriate impetus for reflection upon our own efforts. (My comments follow.)
Putting aside the need to earn a living, think that there are four great motives 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:
(1) Sheer egoism. 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, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend that 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 abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, 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 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.
(2) Aesthetic enthusiasm. 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. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or a writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
(3) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(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 ideas 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 a political attitude.
Now, about those motives.
I don’t imagine there is a soul among us in the blogosphere who does not deeply feel a desire to be perceived as clever. Mr. Blair is correct in perceiving it to be humbug to say otherwise. Even those of us who blog anonymously cannot escape it.
As for aesthetic enthusiasm, I must agree with Mr. Blair that this is at best a feeble motive, and doubly so for most bloggers. The very nature of the blog – short, timely, and regularly posted – necessitates for all but the most skillful wordsmiths among us that corners be cut. And where better to cut them than here. Our medium is such that we cannot expect readers, save for the occasional Ulysses fan, to stick around for more than a page or so. No, the focus must be on making the point, and making it quickly.
Certainly, each of us has our own style, even if our writings are posted after only a single draft. But I most often find myself sacrificing, “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, [and] in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story,” for something that I can bang out during my lunch hour or between returning home for the evening and falling asleep.
Of course, I am rarely satisfied with the outcome, and more often than not feel as though I have left some vital part of myself exposed every time I click on the “publish” button. But the gift of the information age is that most is soon forgotten, and I move on to yet another half-assed attempt at prose. I am not a good writer, so I suppose it is just as well that I can reassure myself by labeling these efforts half-assed and be done with it.
I recall once reading in the introduction to Brave New World Revisited how displeased Aldous Huxley became in rereading the manuscript of BNW several decades after publication. And at the very least I can take comfort in knowing that much greater writers than myself struggle with the same.
I won’t deny, at least in the authors of the blogs I regularly read, a strong historical impulse. Whether or not any of our ones and zeros will be around for posterity’s sake, I cannot say. But I admire their desire to see things as they are and to find out true facts, even if I disagree with those facts.
Finally, little needs to be said about political motives I think. While some may not admit to a “desire to push the world in a certain direction,” few can deny a desire, “to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
I have left much unsaid, about how one’s childhood experiences shape one’s writing for example, so I encourage anyone interested to go read the entire essay before commenting.