George Orwell's Four Great Motives for Writing

"All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery."


by Matt Hart

Many of us were forced to read the English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) when we were in college. Blair was, of course, George Orwell's surname. For me, his two books, Animal Farm and 1984, were somewhat of a revelation in what could be accomplished through fiction, and they left a considerable mark on my consciousness. In his book, A Collection of Essays, Orwell covers much ground, but it's his essay titled "Why I Write" that is most compelling to me.
"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 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 and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."
He goes on to describe the four major things that he believes motivate writers:
"Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motivations 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 she is living. They are

- Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snub you in childhood, etc., etc. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessman — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

- Esthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words in the right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

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

- Political purpose. Using the word "political "in the widest possible sense. 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."

In 1936 Orwell volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, an experience that he wrote about in another great first person essay, his book Homage to Catalonia. Without getting into specifics in A Collection of Essays, Orwell writes that this is the moment when he began to align his writing in opposition to totalitarianism.
"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."
A Collection of Essays gives a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the world's great writers and is a master class in essay writing. Complement it with Christopher Hitchen's 2012 book Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, and you will have, at your fingertips, two of the greatest minds of all time.