Even though I have read and liked a great deal of George Orwell in the past, I read his essay Why I Write for the first time this week. It’s good. Definitely worth reading, but not lyric or moving or anything like that. Insightful. I like George Orwell. His essays, non-fiction and novels are usually incredibly good. I remember everything I have read by him which is surprising considering how much I forget. Of course, as a narcissist when I read an essay like this I think about myself: “why do I write?” I ask myself, a little flattered at the imaginary attention, “gosh, I’ve never really thought about it”.
The difficulty with me responding is that I am not a successful and famous highly regarded writer. In 1946 people might have actually been interested in learning what made Orwell tick. I think I am correct in believing that no one (a) regards me as a writer, and (b) cares why I write. Thankfully, as I mentioned earlier, I am a narcissist, so I will proceed despite those two quite valid points.
Orwell’s list of reasons that people write seems spot on to me. It starts here:
(i) Sheer egoism.Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.
There are two highly contradictory impulses in me. One is the religious ascetic and the other seeks acclaim. Part of me wishes to live some kind of life out on the edges somewhere clear and clean. That’s the part of me that is sometimes a vegetarian, the part of me that turns off the TV, the part of me that reads Song of Myself over and over, and is slightly obsessed by Francis of Assisi, and the Sermon on the Mount, and wishes – a little bit destructively – that I was better than I am. The world, and the flesh, is intolerant of such purist fantasies. After all, if all you really wanted to do was write you could and it wouldn’t need to be on a blog. It could be in a notebook that you never showed anyone. Who cares what “anyone” thinks after all?
One person who cares is the part of me who writes on a blog. The guy who sometimes wonders what his statistics are like. The guy on Twitter who feels bad when there are no notifications and good when there are notifications and cross with himself either way. The guy who has wanted to write a book since he was about eight years old, and wanted to be a rock star from the age of 15. That guy. He’s the one who thought he would be famous by now, and has practiced interview questions in the mirror since he was about 16. Yeah, that guy.
So, those two me-s exist in me and I (despite putting on weight) am still just one person containing that conflict. I will be 42 in March. It’s not an age you imagine being. When I was a lot younger I thought about how old I would be in 2000 (27), and I also – with a few friends – imagined being a grumpy old man. Problematically, the guy who was the lynch pin in being a grumpy old man has already died and the fun has well and truly been taken out of that role. 42? Nothing. Does anyone imagine themselves at 42? “Hey,” they might say, “maybe I’ll have a mortgage and an established ‘career’ by then”: the pre-teen dreams as they listen to Take On Me by A-ha in 1984.
Yeah, nah. In 1991 I thought I was going to be Jim Morrison. It was based on the solid foundation of seeing Oliver Stone’s movie about The Doors. It’s a pretty good movie, but probably not the basis of a career plan. Now I’m a teacher. I started teaching in 1997. That’s 18 years ago (off stage, audible: “Jesus!”). After 18 years I can say that I’m getting better at teaching. Slowly. I can say the same thing about my writing. It’s getting better. I started blogging about ten years ago and it was only last year that I hit the style that is right for me. At this rate I should have that first book out by the time I’m 80.
Orwell’s other reasons for writing are equally accurate in my humble opinion:
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. —Desire to push the world in a certain direction
Writing, and reading writing, has always been very pleasurable to me. I say always but, in fact, I stopped reading entirely in secondary school and only really picked it up again when I started university. I think my obsession with music took over the aesthetic part of my brain at that time and I sought beauty in songs and the lyrics of songs. Lyrically the 80s were quite a mixed bag (“I smell like I sound”), but there were always stand out lines to be enjoyed, savoured and sung back to the radio:
I was grounded
While you filled the skies
I was dumbfounded by truth
You cut through lies
I saw the rain dirty valley
You saw Brigadoon
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon
In songs and in writing for the page I like two things most. I like the heightened, poetic, run-on of language that takes you with it like a surging rain engorged stream flooding to the sea. I also like the clean, clear writing of a report in which the crafting and the detail illuminate. There is a great deal of writing between those two bookends of style and while a lot of it is very good it rarely moves me. If I were to analyse my attraction to these two forms of writing I would say that the lyric is the idealist in me, and the other type is the pragmatist. It is very hard to combine these two things.
The other two reasons that Orwell gives to write have only occurred to me very recently. Orwell’s “true facts” are on a far more wide-ranging scale than my true facts. His true facts are about the nature of power, or the situation of the poor, or the effects of imperialism. I seem to be bothered by the small stuff of the daily life of the person un-regarded by history. Probably because I am that person and so are all the people I have known. Our lives have value; they are illuminating. The Epic of Gilgamesh may be a wonderful piece of literature but what of the thousands who harvested the crops in Gilgamesh’s time? Their lives have value, their lives were also full of joy and pain. They too are part of the dust that blows over Persia.
Writing to push the world in a certain direction also rings true, but in my case it is pure vanity to think that I actually do. I am really just recording what I think as an end note buried far at the back of the book that the media is writing about the world. It is the least satisfying aspect of writing for me because I sometimes mistake my writing for reality and then reality throws a bucket of cold water over me. I write sometimes about feminism, sometimes about education, and sometimes about the environment in this political vein. Orwell suggests that his own writing may have been inferior if he had lived in less political times as he finds that often his best stuff is enlivened by political motives. It’s true. The most popular things I write often come from the heat of outrage at the way the world is. The difficulty is that if you write like that all the time you can become quite shrill, you can lose the natural speaking tone of your voice, and – in my case at least – you can become quite depressed. I am, after all, not George Orwell, I am a 42 year old teacher writing an infrequently read blog. The medium creates the illusion of reach, but it is an illusion.
I find myself in quite an unsatisfactory head space as I enter another year of writing on this blog. One thing I do know is true is that the impulse to write is still there and that I should act on it, because that might not always be the case. The impulse to play the guitar and write songs was once like a fever in me that ran for twenty years and now seems to run cold.
Run while you can.