Writing about Writing about Writing


Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. – George Orwell

I picked up a collection of George Orwell’s essays before a five-and-a-half hour flight to Nashville for Christmas. The little book (literally pocked-sized) leads with “Why I Write,” Orwell’s classic discussion on why he chose to write for a living (or, rather, how writing chose him). He also offers his opinion on what drives most writers to put pen to paper and why he gravitated to political writing, particularly writing about democratic socialism.

Orwell said he knew at about age six that he should be writer when he grew up. I knew at about age eight, after reading Harriet the Spy (thank you Aunt Sue) and receiving my first diary. Harriet spied on friends and neighbors and made up fantastic stories about them. I wrote about my very uneventful childhood, which included true stories about friends and neighbors.

On the first page, Orwell writes about feeling lonely and isolated, due to his family upbringing and a “disagreeable” nature that made him unpopular at school. How many writers have felt this way? Many of them, I suspect! I was an only child, and while I usually had neighbor kids to play with, I also had an inordinate amount of time to myself, and spent much of it daydreaming. Our family room had a glass coffee table, and I used to lie underneath it and pretend I was Snow White in her glass coffin. I once got so absorbed in my Snow White story that I didn’t hear my father asking me to do something. That didn’t go over well.

While I doubt my work will ever make a political statement like Orwell – I try to stay informed of national and world events, but don’t consider myself an activist type, feminist leanings notwithstanding – many of his ideas and experiences resonated with me.

Orwell writes that one’s early development informs his or her writing, that “before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” So we must mature in our writing but not lose sight of our early influences. In a high school psychology class, our teacher made us keep a daily journal – one page a day – that we turned in to her periodically. (For me, this was in addition to a journal I was already keeping, with the class assignment being heavily censored.) On one of the batches, the teacher wrote “Honest! Full of You!” at the top of the page. I think that basic premise informs a lot of my writing. I try not to filter between my thoughts and the page, other than to organize. I imagine how I would tell the story to someone sitting across from me and go from there. I don’t aim to impress with difficult words. I’d rather someone understand the story than be impressed with my vocabulary.

The need to understand, and be understood, falls into the first of what Orwell considers the “four great motives for writing:”

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.” This motive applies to “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.” Thanks a lot!

Admittedly, this is a sub-motive of mine. I have something to say or I know of a story that needs to be told. The only way for me to do that is to write it down. Aside from my journal, which helps me work through problems and untangle my feelings, I write it down with the intention that others will read, and then know, learn and understand the story I convey. This ties in with…

2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.” I’m not too concerned with “the impact of one sound upon another” in prose, but I am mindful of rhythm. And there is definitely the “desire to share an experience which one feels in valuable and ought not to be missed.” I’d say this is true for folks that blog about their bike rides or even those that post pictures of their dinner on Facebook.

In my nonfiction journalistic work there is…

3. Historical impulse. “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” It’s gratifying and historically important that much of the history of San Francisco Bay Area recording studios is now in permanent printed form, where before it lived only in memories.

Strongest for Orwell, weakest for me, we have…

4. Political purpose. “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

I agree that most writers likely write with one or more of these four motives in mind, whether they realize it or not. Underlying these motives, for me at least, is creative expression and compulsion. I just can’t do anything else. I am a one-trick pony. Writing is the thing that I can’t not do, and it’s the one thing that I’m fairly certain I can do well. It’s as natural for me (though more of a struggle) as breathing or running.

The same can be said for many artists: musicians, songwriters, painters, filmmakers. It’s how we communicate with the world.

But is it true that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy,” as Orwell believed? I can accept selfish, but not in a mean-spirited, Me First! sense. If the ability to seclude oneself for hours, weeks, months at a time, to the detriment of family and other personal relationships, but for the sake of the work, qualifies as selfish, that would be the case.

I’m sure there are some lazy writers out there, but they are most likely not writing for a living. Unless they are independently wealthy, stupidly gifted or really lucky, a lazy writer is a penniless writer.

2 thoughts on “Writing about Writing about Writing

  1. Heather,

    I really like your writing style and I love your attitude. It is nice to run across a writer who knows who she is and isn’t trying to be something she isn’t. It is very nice and refreshing. I cant wait to read more from you.

    As for the topic of this post, I am not familiar with Orwell other than the books I was required to read in High School. Of course, I wasn’t a student of the written word then either and I have been playing catch-up ever since. I find his list interesting and spot on.

    Like you, my main motivation to write is the ego angle. I want to write something that bends the senses and re-shapes the literary world. But I am not blessed with the ability to craft sentences filled with literary marvels. So I will beat the writing world into submission and have fun doing it.

    Again, it is a pleasure to run across your work.


    • Hi Rob, Great to meet you! Like you, I read Orwell’s work in high school, but was so happy to find this essay collection. May the writing world succumb to your creative beatings! — Heather

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