Reasons for writing, according to George Orwell

Radio 4 is about to embark on a series of programs celebrating the life and work of George Orwell, presumably triggered by the fact that 2013 is the 110-year anniversary of his birth. Orwell is one of my favourite authors, so I am looking forward to the season, especially the first ever Radio 4 production of 1984.

As well as writing some fantastic novels, Orwell was a great essayist. Like many writers, Orwell wrote about writing itself, and was particularly insightful on his personal motivations for writing. I suspect they are rather more general than just Orwell’s. You can read the full text of the motivations on the excellent Brain Pickings site. In short Orwell identifies four:

  • Sheer egoism
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm
  • Historical impulse
  • Political purpose

Of course, when Orwell wrote in 1946 it was far easier to write than it was to get more than a few people to read what you had written. Things are very different now, so how well do Orwell’s motivations stack up in the world of blogs and Twitter and Facebook? Well, there is plenty of egoism visible in the mass of writing on the internet, and it is also possible to identify writing aimed at producing a record of what happens (Orwell’s historical impulse) or causing political change. What is sometimes lacking on-line is a focus on writing that is beautiful for its own sake. Orwell himself was a master of this (try reading passages from 1984 or Animal Farm out loud), and does acknowledge that “The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers”. While few of us who write on-line are able to master pace and rhythm in prose like Orwell, it’s not a bad challenge to try to cultivate our ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ for the written word.