When an established writer speaks to an audience, someone may ask, “What advice would you give aspiring writers?” This moment often arouses the speaker’s chortling, sighs, and/or eye-rolling. Many times—maybe most of the time—the writer urges that if you can do anything else, you ought to. That answer rarely satisfies, coming across as bragging, chest-pounding over some trying period of struggle and doubt now passed, a period the aspiring writer is still, miserably, in.
The advice often sounds self-indulgent, untrue, too happily—smugly—given.
In George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” he offers a similar answer. He presents four motives for a writer: “Sheer egotism” (wanting to be seen as “clever”); “Esthetic enthusiasm” (appreciation of the beauty of words); “Historical impulse” (the desire to find facts and preserve them); and “Political purpose” (wanting to “push the world in a certain direction”). However, by the end of the essay, Orwell decides in favor of simple compulsion.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle” he says, “one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” He compares composition to “A long bout of some painful illness.”
His description of writing’s depths of despair echoes more soundly, however, because Orwell adds another distinction few crowing sufferers do. The demon can’t be understood or claimed as a gift, a badge of merit, or a special cargo. “For all one knows” he says, “that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.” The desire to write is a mystery—and also an obsession and a pain and a burden—but mostly primordial, like a wailing child.
The distinction between Orwell and those who claim writing as their special torture may be subtle, but it seems important. Orwell takes no secret (or not-so-secret) pride in survival. He sees agony as central to the process. Creativity is difficult because it requires relentless revision both of the page and the person who fills it. He says, “One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” His answer is not the now-clichéd self-congratulation offered by the persevering author who outlasted the hungry phase. He isn’t saying, “If you can do anything besides writing, you ought to.” He says, “If you want to write well, don’t rest.”
The reward of revelation is great even when it’s temporary. Orwell must have enjoyed what, to others, seems excruciating. Maybe writing takes that.
His outlook gives essays like “Shooting an Elephant” their power—the writer’s willingness to ruin illusions, to strip himself to reveal source material, to reconstruct himself in print… all that subdues egotism. Orwell closes “Shooting an Elephant,” by saying that he shot the elephant, “Solely to avoid looking a fool.” In confessing, he admits to being a fool. Even when the subject does not demand self-effacement, Orwell suggests a writer should seek it.
“By the time you have perfected any style of writing,” Orwell says, “you have always outgrown it.” The restlessness of a writer is also his or her essential trait.
In the final section of “Why I Write,” Orwell tries to respond to those who identify his writing as politically motivated. He says his writing is better when, rather than setting out to change the world, he sees it more plainly. Though political, his impulses arise from a need to face his—and humanity’s—rationalization, puffery, and hypocrisy.
Many authors suggest the chief trouble of being a writer is working long enough and hard enough to make it, and, having made it, they celebrate their difficult journey. Their pride is understandable. Who wouldn‘t feel justified by at last being read? But Orwell’s self-effacement seems more profound. He suggests no real writer ever makes it.