Kay: Why I Write

In 1946, J.B. Pick and Charles Neil, editors of Gangrel magazine, published an essay by George Orwell called “Why I Write.” Orwell’s essay became famous, and when I first read it, it was a revelation, from his early life that shaped his mind, to his military service and early jobs that focused his point of view. His thoughts and opinions are, shall we say, bracing. So, whenever I want to think about why I spend so much time by myself in a small room, I look to see what other people who do what I do think about it.

The Aerogram Writers Studio published snippets on this topic from several well-known authors. One of my favorite quotes is from Octavia E. Butler, (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) an African-American science fiction author, who won both Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times and in 1995 became the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Butler said, “I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.”

Gloria Steinem, a nonfiction writer, said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” I can relate to that!

Lots of writers seem to write to gain self-understanding. Flannery O’Connor has said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,” and Joan Didion seems to echo this idea when she said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Gao Xingjian, a novelist, playwright, and painter, was born in China in 1940, immigrated to France in the late 1980s (and became a citizen in 1998), and then won the Nobel Prize in 2000. He said, “Writing eases my suffering . . . writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence.”

And why does George Orwell write? He says the reasons, to one degree or another, are the same for all writers:

  • 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…. 
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
  • Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to 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 peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. [N]o book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

I know what writing means to me: I first began writing fiction a couple of years after what we’ve come to call 9/11, when I couldn’t shake the cloud that this event had cast over our lives. I thought, maybe if I wrote happy endings, that would help. And it did. Now I write because telling a story—and even writing a good sentence—gives me joy. I still want to create a happy ending, but now the process makes me happy, too.

Do you write? If so, why? As a reader, can you see the attitudes of these writers in their work?

10 thoughts on “Kay: Why I Write

  1. Hmmm. I think…first of all, personal satisfaction. I love wrangling a story, dreaming up people and places, working through the frustrations and dead ends until it all comes together as something I’m proud of. I get a huge kick out of the way my subconscious offers up an idea out of the blue, usually just when I’m starting to think I’ll never solve whatever problem is stalling my progress.

    And secondly, because I can control this reality. Even if it still has tough times and injustices and sadness, I know the good guys will triumph and everything will be okay. In our crazy world that makes it a reviving place to spend time. Oscar Wilde (well, Miss Prism) said it. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Ezzackly!

    • Controlling the reality—-that’s what I like, too. When I was a magazine editor of computer how-to articles, the slightest miscalculation of a semicolon could render the code all wrong. With a novel, if I need it to rain, it can rain. I love that about fiction.

  2. Interesting!

    Well, I write to find out what happens next, I guess. I can wrangle situations and conflicts and characters in my head to some extent, but the characters only really come alive when I commit them to the page. I stop writing because I suck at plotting or the words are all clunk and no smoooooove, if you know what I mean. Curiosity really is one of the driving motivations of my life.

    • Living with curiosity is a good way to live! I think not understanding characters until they’re on the page is common for lots of writers. The characters shift and change as we learn more about them; they gel as we put them into situations from which they need to educate themselves.

      I wouldn’t say you suck at plotting. 🙂

  3. Reading the essay. His habit of describing his environs is very interesting. I don’t think I ever did that, but I did often carry out conversations in my head, practicing how things would go and the best way to say things, even simple thing.

    Motivations: he missed curiosity. He also missed sheer helpfulness to other humans (the lecturing moral drama, but also simple news articles about how to vacuum your cat or other tidbits). Some might say that helpfulness is just vanity to make people like you more, but some people continue to put out blog posts without getting any comments in return — or engaging in the ones they do get.

    I think this shows in his fiction. I re-read 1984 last fall, and his characters are not very concerned with being helpful to other people, and they tend to lack a certain curiosity that goes beyond furthering their own selfish agendas. One reason I like Atwood better than Orwell for dystopias.

    I wonder if I am too old for the political indignation of today. My instinct is to escape from it, into the slightly better (even though not great) world of my young adulthood. I’m dismayed and I feel like I am drowning when I delve into politics. It seems like today’s situation would be great fuel for the artistic fire, but the fuel I gathered was from another age . . . .

    • I have a strong sense of that, too, Michaeline–that my fuel of righteous indignation may be partly petrified. When I was young I wanted to be in the vanguard. Now I find I hang back, wanting to get a full picture before I commit to a cause.

  4. Well, I always thought that Orwell lived in his head, so there wasn’t as much need to develop his characters in such a way that readers would have much emotional engagement or empathy with them. I always thought he was more or less presenting a political point of view, and his characters served that. So he wouldn’t have much use for characters showing curiosity or helpfulness, for example. I’ve read most of his work, but it’s been a while, so I might not be getting this quite right.

    As for the current political drama, I cannot go there; it is too depressing. Am I too old? Maybe. For one thing, it’s really dispiriting to demonstrate for issues I demonstrated for 40 years ago.

    • I only remember 1984, since I read it so recently. But I think Animal Farm may have been along similar lines. I think his idea was that love could not thrive in a fascist society, and curiosity was crushed completely out and helpfulness, too. After 1984, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale, which was also a similar dystopia under a fascist government — but the big difference was that they could not crush out basic human kindness and rightness from above. It kept popping up — there was an underground. The Marthas would (somewhat reluctantly) help. People cheated on the Fascist Ideal all the time. If they were caught, they’d get hanged.

      I think Orwell may have been missing a little something. Growing up during WW1 might have warped him a bit that way, too. IDK. I know very little about his personal life, except that he had at least one wife (IIRC, two), and his widow wouldn’t let David Bowie write a musical about 1984.

      Honestly, I really don’t know how he could live with 1984 in his head — maybe he NEEDED to write it to purge it. I hope it worked. Purging one’s nasty thoughts — would that be egoism? I think that’s another reason why writers write. Therapy.

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