Why I Write

In 1945, George Orwell penned Why I Write, an essay detailing his ascent as a writer and the motivations that fueled his work. It’s a beautiful reflection on how our upbringing and personal development are present in our writing. It’s also an explanation of why writers write.

“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development…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.”

Orwell posits that four factors motivate great prose: sheer egoism; aesthetic enthusiasm; historical importance; and, political purpose. These motivations manifest at varying degrees. For Orwell, watching the rise of fascism and communism, political purpose eclipsed all others.

The essay resonates with me, not because of today’s political times nor any misguided notion I have of my importance as a writer, but rather because it’s a useful framework for thinking about one’s writing. By understanding our motivations, we become better writers and storytellers.

  • Sheer Egoism: This motivation might be the most profound. As Orwell stated, there’s an inner demon we may not understand which impels us to write. I feel the pull partly because of my own occurrences of self-doubt and feelings of unfulfillment. The act of writing induces a necessary exploration of fear and opens a path to new possibilities. Then, there’s Faulkner’s motivation “to leave a scratch on the wall.” We all want to be remembered. Writing ensures posterity, even in the smallest of doses. Finally, I’m motivated by a less severe form of selfishness — to better understand my own thoughts and feelings. As Joan Didion said, “I write to know what I think.”
  • Aesthetic Enthusiasm: Our most memorable experiences are often best shared with others. The ability to evoke — through writing and storytelling — the same joy for your audience as you yourself experienced in the moment is powerful. This can be a new country or destination visited, a good deed done, an innovation that helps people, inspiring art, a great book, or any source of inspiration that’s meaningful to share with others.
  • Historical Importance: I write to learn how today shapes tomorrow, and out of the recognition that yesterday teaches us about today.
  • Political Purpose: Injustice is pervasive, but so are the efforts of those who fight injustice. Our creative efforts can uncover injustice or unfairness and highlight and support those who are working to right those wrongs.

“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.”

The demon among us may not be fully understood, but each of us has a good idea of what moves us to occupy life the way we do. For me, it’s a combination of self-doubt and self-actualization. At various stages in my life, I’ve ignored, avoided, skirted, attacked, or conquered self-doubt and the discomfort that comes from a sometimes crippling fear of failure. The only consistencies are the existence of such fear and the inconsistency of my response in the face of it. Tethered to and in conflict with that self-doubt is the desire to be better and to do better for myself and for others.

Writing, for me, is the most effective means for understanding that fear and for formulating a response.

Writing is also done in pursuit of what Annie Proulx described as the eternal hope for a happy ending. By writing about wrongs, rights, what works, what doesn’t, and the lessons that make life’s journey more enjoyable, the belief is that we make happier endings more possible.

My intention is to write about wide-ranging topics which satisfy some combination of the above motivations. In the process, I hope that some of the stories provide you the reader new insights and value to apply to your own journey.


Originally published at wesmelville.com on December 3, 2017.