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George Orwell - Why I Write

  • 03-10-2012 2:31pm
    Closed Accounts Posts: 3,981 ✭✭✭ [-0-]

    I found this article yesterday by way of Christopher Hitchens' Vanity Fair article which was in August's edition. Granted the late Hitch passed away late last year, however they waited until August to publish some of his work.

    Orwell is probably best known for Animal Farm and 1984, however we was an essayist long before he wrote either of those texts.

    I find this very inspiring. I hope you do too. :)
    From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I
    grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and
    twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the
    consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or
    later I should have to settle down and write books.

    I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on
    either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and
    other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable
    mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the
    lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with
    imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions
    were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew
    that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts,
    and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get
    my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of
    serious--i.e. seriously intended--writing which I produced all through
    my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages. I wrote
    my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to
    dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a
    tiger and the tiger had 'chair-like teeth'--a good enough phrase, but I
    fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake's 'Tiger, Tiger'. At eleven,
    when the war or 1914-18 broke out, I wrote a patriotic poem which was
    printed in the local newspaper, as was another, two years later, on the
    death of Kitchener. From time to time, when I was a bit older, I wrote
    bad and usually unfinished 'nature poems' in the Georgian style. I also
    attempted a short story which was a ghastly failure. That was the total
    of the would-be serious work that I actually set down on paper during all
    those years.

    However, throughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary
    activities. To begin with there was the made-to-order stuff which I
    produced quickly, easily and without much pleasure to myself. Apart from
    school work, I wrote VERS D'OCCASION, semi-comic poems which I could turn
    out at what now seems to me astonishing speed--at fourteen I wrote a
    whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week--and
    helped to edit a school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These
    magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine,
    and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest
    journalism. But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I
    was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was
    the making up of a continuous 'story' about myself, a sort of diary
    existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children
    and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say,
    Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but
    quite soon my 'story' ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became
    more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I
    saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my
    head: 'He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of
    sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table,
    where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand
    in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a
    tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf', etc. etc. This habit
    continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary
    years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I
    seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under
    a kind of compulsion from outside. The 'story' must, I suppose, have
    reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages,
    but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive

    When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words,
    i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from PARADISE LOST,

    So hee with difficulty and labour hard
    Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.

    which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my
    backbone; and the spelling 'hee' for 'he' was an added pleasure. As for
    the need to describe things, I knew all about it already. So it is clear
    what kind of books I wanted to write, in so far as I could be said to
    want to write books at that time. I wanted to write enormous naturalistic
    novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting
    similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly
    for the sake of their own sound. And in fact my first completed novel,
    BURMESE DAYS, which I wrote when I was thirty but projected much earlier,
    is rather that kind of book.

    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

    (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.

    (ii) 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 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

    (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out
    true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

    (iv) Political purpose.--Using the word 'political' in the widest
    possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter
    other peoples' idea 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 itself a political

    It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another,
    and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.
    By nature--taking your 'nature' to be the state you have attained when
    you are first adult--I am a person in whom the first three motives would
    outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or
    merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my
    political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of
    pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the
    Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the
    sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made
    me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working
    classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the
    nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me
    an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil
    War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.
    I remember a little poem that I wrote at that date, expressing my

    A happy vicar I might have been
    Two hundred years ago
    To preach upon eternal doom
    And watch my walnuts grow;

    But born, alas, in an evil time,
    I missed that pleasant haven,
    For the hair has grown on my upper lip
    And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

    And later still the times were good,
    We were so easy to please,
    We rocked our troubled thoughts to sleep
    On the bosoms of the trees.

    All ignorant we dared to own
    The joys we now dissemble;
    The greenfinch on the apple bough
    Could make my enemies tremble.

    But girl's bellies and apricots,
    Roach in a shaded stream,
    Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
    All these are a dream.

    It is forbidden to dream again;
    We maim our joys or hide them:
    Horses are made of chromium steel
    And little fat men shall ride them.

    I am the worm who never turned,
    The eunuch without a harem;
    Between the priest and the commissar
    I walk like Eugene Aram;

    And the commissar is telling my fortune
    While the radio plays,
    But the priest has promised an Austin Seven,
    For Duggie always pays.

    I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
    And woke to find it true;
    I wasn't born for an age like this;
    Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?

    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, as I understand it. It
    seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can
    avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or
    another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what
    approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political
    bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing
    one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

    What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make
    political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of
    partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do
    not say to myself, 'I am going to produce a work of art'. I write it
    because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I
    want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I
    could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article,
    if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine
    my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains
    much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not
    able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I
    acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall
    continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the
    earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless
    information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job
    is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially
    public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

    It is not easy. It raises problems of construction and of language, and
    it raises in a new way the problem of truthfulness. Let me give just one
    example of the cruder kind of difficulty that arises. My book about the
    Spanish civil war, HOMAGE TO CATALONIA, is of course a frankly political
    book, but in the main it is written with a certain detachment and regard
    for form. I did try very hard in it to tell the whole truth without
    violating my literary instincts. But among other things it contains a
    long chapter, full of newspaper quotations and the like, defending the
    Trotskyists who were accused of plotting with Franco. Clearly such a
    chapter, which after a year or two would lose its interest for any
    ordinary reader, must ruin the book. A critic whom I respect read me a
    lecture about it. 'Why did you put in all that stuff?' he said. 'You've
    turned what might have been a good book into journalism.' What he said
    was true, but I could not have done otherwise. I happened to know, what
    very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men
    were being falsely accused. If I had not been angry about that I should
    never have written the book.

    In one form or another this problem comes up again. The problem of
    language is subtler and would take too long to discuss. I will only say
    that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more
    exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style
    of writing, you have always outgrown it. ANIMAL FARM was the first book
    in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse
    political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written
    a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is
    bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some
    clarity what kind of book I want to write.

    Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it
    appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I
    don't want to leave that as the final impression. 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. And yet it is also true that one can
    write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's
    own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with
    certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them
    deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it
    is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless
    books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning,
    decorative adjectives and humbug generally.


  • Moderators, Arts Moderators Posts: 33,529 Mod ✭✭✭✭ pickarooney


  • Registered Users Posts: 1,183 ✭✭✭ Antilles


    You never studied.

  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,981 ✭✭✭ [-0-]


    Shameful. :pac:

  • Registered Users Posts: 514 ✭✭✭ Brian Lighthouse

    Here are two Fantastic sites on the Journalist, Polemicist, Essayist, Author, and all round Super Hero for the English language (readers and writers).

    I would recommend "Politics and the English Language" if you like to write:

    Here is some beautiful writing:

    In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered in his address book. He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses. (Eric Arthur Blair 1946)

  • Registered Users Posts: 447 ✭✭ Agent Weebley

    I entered our website into The Orwell Prize last January. Our site, ARG MetaPhoria, is obviously too hot to handle for those milkweeds, so amanfromMars and I gave them another piece of our mind. They have now flattened all posts into a dead list, but could not bring themselves to Winston Smith our posts, which can be found here. Now, all you can do is email something to Katriona Lewis and they decide whether to post it on their site . . . or not. Yeah, I'll send her another message and see if she posts it. Tomorrow, after some shut-eye. I always blog my messages. David Cameron, Nick Clegg, the Queen (via MI6), Bono, the list is long . . . a longlist.

    Its like M.A.D.D.* money sloshing around to promote concrete Marxist/Hegelian Dialectic political thinkers, rather than apolitical game changers.

    George Orwell . . . turning in his grave that his name is being used for an annual circle jerkle.

    *Mothers Against Drunk Driving is now a sham - want a sticker for your car to show you care?

  • Advertisement
  • Registered Users Posts: 447 ✭✭ Agent Weebley

    Here's a little something for you, dogmax . . . you said it at least twice.

    A little tip . . . care not for the oppressors . . . there is nothing they can do . . .

    What I have most wanted to do, is turn political writing into an annual event - George Orwell 2012

    I will link to the site later, as the site is currently down - probably a DDOS underway?

  • Closed Accounts Posts: 158 ✭✭ dogmax


    Or maybe that should read (to long; didn't remove) :rolleyes:

    What I have most wanted to do, is turn political writing into an annual event - George Orwell 2012

    Without Creative Writers politicians would be Artless.

    A little tip . . . care not for the oppressors . . . there is nothing they can do . . . :D

    We're who we're, and we will be, who we will Become.

    For our History is Our, and our Future, is Long.

    ;) Agent Weebley.

    George Orwell - Why I Write.

    Freedom Writers.

  • Registered Users Posts: 447 ✭✭ Agent Weebley

    Hi dogmax,

    I did a fair bit of thinking about George Orwell earlier in the year. the best reading of his story is to read between the lines, since his lung problem should have had him write 1984 in the Sahara, rather than Jura.

    The Road To Wigan Pier, for example, was commissioned to further the Marxist "divide and conquer" meme, to reinforce class against class angst and hopelessness.

    He realised he was being used; 1984 was him turning rogue . . .

    . . . and sorry for my previous post being somewhat discombobulated sounding. I'll give you a connector to join the diodes to rectify the DC into AC. You are connector Number 5.

    Be seeing you!

  • Closed Accounts Posts: 3,981 ✭✭✭ [-0-]

    I can't help but scratch my head.