Orwell’s challenge: What are we writing for?


In addition to all his other works, George Orwell (1903-1950) wrote two great essays that inspire me: "Why I Write" and "Politics and the English Language." Anyone professing to write or read ought to be familiar with the latter.

I’m looking at a cliché of a purple ribbon that reads “First Place, Key Largo Elementary School Creative Writing Contest, 1982.”

I’m not exactly sure what I did to earn it, but I remember what I did the following year.  I tried to be funny.  I submitted some piece of hilarity that was a ten-year-old’s idea of funny.  I think I parodied MASH.

I don’t have any ribbons for 1983.

I find this funny now because when I was a kid, I suspect lots of people imagined I’d be a writer.  I did several “cute” things as a kid, such as sing, act, play piano and tennis, and write.  Of those things, the only thing I regularly do anymore is write.

But is my writing “cute”?  I really hope not.

This all came up recently when I assigned George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” to my journalism students.  In the essay, Orwell defines four purposes for writing, stating he does his best work when writing with a “political” purpose.  But he also argues that writers cannot escape who they are at heart:

His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in …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.

Thinking about the writing I did as a kid scares me a bit.  I don’t remember what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I know why I wrote.

I wrote because it impressed the people around me.  My parents, teachers, other adults.  That’s why I wrote.

It wasn’t just writing, actually.  It was my facility with words.  I was a precociously early reader.  One of my parents’ favorite stories was how I proved this by reading aloud from The Wall Street Journal at age three.  I gather I was a hit at my parents’ cocktail parties.

It wasn’t until later, obviously, that I learned to write.  But with this, I think things worked about the same.  I wrote because it impressed other people that I could write, and that I could write “well” – however that might be defined.

Writing for others – what Orwell calls “sheer egoism” – drove my writing for years.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Orwell; “Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.”

And for years, I had no greater purpose to my writing than to please the people around me.  Who I was as a writer shifted according to the tastes and requirements of the people around me.

Academic writing, I fear, brings out the worst in some writers.  It certainly did in me.  The semi-colon was my favorite friend.  Tortuously long sentences?  My bag, baby.  This is an unfortunately typical example of my academic prose, from a paper I wrote in college about Aphra Behn’s The Rover:

…(the sexism of Restoration) society proved to be far too great a current to swim against, and thus women of the time were presented with only two options – swim with the river or drown in its murky and misogynistic depths…

(Hellena) is able to control her situation to as much of a degree as possible for a woman of the period, and in the end wins her prize, her marriage to Willmore which, although not perfect, she prefers rather than face lifelong confinement in a nunnery.

Ack.  And I promise you, there’s far worse sitting in boxes in my basement.  To make things worse, I also enjoyed the occasional witty metaphor or allusion. For years in school, I wrote extended passages full of flowery language.

My writing finally improved dramatically, thanks to the interventions of two professors who pointed out the error of my ways, and one professor who taught me how to write more clearly.  My grades went up.

But there’s a problem with writing primarily for others.  Eventually, you grow up.  And unless you have some greater purpose, the audience is no longer amused by the child’s performance.

As college and graduate school faded in the rear-view mirror of memory (see, I still got it!), the audience went away.  The student became the teacher.  My writing was chiefly confined to comments on papers.  It’s pretty to think they were read.

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been writing, and only in the last few months I can claim any regularity in my work.  Anyone can claim the title of writer, but not everyone can pull it off.  And I’ve known for some time my primary stumbling block as a writer was discipline.

Once I’m over that, I’m left with a problem.

Who am I as a writer?

What’s my purpose?

Have I simply found a new audience to entertain?

Wrapping up his essay, Orwell presents a disturbing truth:

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.

He might as well be writing that on one of my papers.

It’s all well and good to write a blog.  And I’m happy that I’ve managed to keep this one going as long as I have.  I’m hoping that what is now a habit acquired by discipline will become a passion motivated by purpose.

I just hope when I get there I know what that purpose is.


One thought on “Orwell’s challenge: What are we writing for?

  1. ‘Cute’ is not an adjective I’d use to describe your writing, Ted.

    Have no fears on that level.

    How about ‘clean’ or ‘assured’?

    I think they’re a better fit.

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