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Sunday, 19 January 2014

Why I write (after Orwell)


george-orwellThe summer 1946 edition of the short-lived magazine Gangrel included an essay by George Orwell entitled, ‘Why I Write’. It opens with the following short sentence:

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.

I never did. Apart from a single poem—a macabre thing written in Scots about, of all things, a public hanging—I never wrote anything that wasn’t part of my schoolwork. If given a topic I would hand in an essay or a story or a poem, I suppose. I don’t actually recall ever being asked to write a poem but I also can’t imagine going through Primary School without ever doing so, so let’s just assume that I did. The first thing I wanted to be—this would be about the age of seven—was a mathematician; I remember being asked—the class I was in was in one of the huts that had been constructed in the playground—and I also recall Brian S. at the back of the class saying he wanted to be a giant when he grew up. I’ve no idea what anyone else said they wanted to be or whether any of them got to be what they wanted to be although I’m fairly certain Brian never got to be a giant. I’ve always been good at maths, always in the top maths class and always in the top percentile of that class but I never became a mathematician. That said all that algebra certainly came in handy when I started programming which I also loved and was good at.

He continues:

Between the ages of about 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 sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

By the time I was seventeen—and by this time I’d left school and already quit my first job (I’d wanted to be a draughtsman and although I was top of my year I didn’t cope well in the workplace; I realised very quickly that that wasn’t the job for me)—and I was wondering what exactly I was going to do with my life. The idea of trying anything that involved anything more than Basic English—for example, journalism—never occurred to me. A family friend pointed me towards a vacancy in the Civil Service and that’s where I went. It was a good fit. The job required business English, modest arithmetical skills and a modicum of common sense so, having two out of the three under my belt, I muddled through until I could fake the third. I’m still faking it.

I began to write poetry so I would have something to submit to the school magazine and for each of the four years I was at Secondary School I had more poems published than anyone else; this was between the ages of twelve and sixteen. After leaving school at sixteen I found I still wanted to write poetry, that it filled a need other than the need for attention, and so I continued and began submitting to small press magazines with, I hasten to add, modest success. I even got paid for one and not just a contributor’s copy. But I still viewed writing as a hobby although I hated the word and have never referred to my writing as a hobby other than on a CV and even there after a few years I changed ‘Hobbies’ to ‘Interests’. I was never going to make any money out of it—that was blindingly obvious—and yet when I looked in the mirror I saw a poet looking back at me and I gained some comfort from that. I never, not for a second, considered writing prose and then one day I came home from work and, without giving it a second thought, wrote a play. It was a bad play—it clearly needed that second thought—but it had a good title—The Normalpath. Why I thought I could write a play I have no idea. An idea came a-knocking, it evidently wouldn’t work as a poem, so I let the content dictate the form. Little did I know that this was to become my first Rule of Writing. I was twenty-one when I wrote what technically can be described as my first book; motivated by the birth of my first and only child I dashed off a children’s book, H M Mole, with the great opening line: “Henry Martin Mole was a mole which is a useful thing to be with a name like Henry Martin Mole”. She was eighteen before I got round to reading it to her but that’s another story.

Orwell continues:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

I was the eldest of three; my brother is three years younger than me and our sister is three years younger than him. I don’t think that was planned; I suspect that’s just how things worked out. I was not an especially lonely child although I was not uncomfortable spending lengthy periods of time in my own company—it was good company—and I grew increasingly tolerant of solitude as I grew older or rather intolerant of others. I did not have an imaginary friend. I recall a child in the street, a girl called Maureen I think, calling me a recluse once: “Here comes the recluse,” she said. Not sure how old I was when she did but I remember being a bit taken aback because, to my mind, a recluse was like a hermit and, at least in kids’ stories, hermits were never the most likeable of characters. I didn’t have a label to 260px-A_Journey_to_the_Centre_of_the_Earth-1874describe what I was other than me and being me was the most normal thing under the sun. I didn’t do much writing at this time. I discovered classical music when I was about twelve; that and art absorbed me for the next few years. I wrote music, painted pictures and read although mostly non-fiction. I never bought any fiction bar comics until I’d left school. What little I did read came from the local library and the only book I can remember taking out was Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Don’t get me wrong, words interested me, they fascinated and delighted me, but apart from an expanding vocabulary I didn’t have much use for them. In this regard I was the same as Orwell:

When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost

So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.

which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling ‘hee’ for ‘he’ was an added pleasure.

Yes, at sixteen (and even younger), I knew that words were a source of pleasure. I loved prefixes and suffixes. I thought the word ‘hemidemisemiquaver’ was just wonderful, so much more magical than the boring old American ‘sixty-fourth note’.

Orwell completed his first novel, Burmese Days, when he was thirty. This, I have to say, surprised me. From the way he describes his childhood I assumed that he would’ve begun much earlier. I was only four years older when I wrote my first novel; you can’t really call H M Mole a novel.

Orwell continues:

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.

I’ve read those three sentences over and over again. They read like a statement of fact, the kind of thing a university lecturer would trot off and his students would scribble down frantically and try to decipher (in more ways than one) later on. Whether one agrees with him or not Orwell certainly gives one reason to pause. What was my motive for writing and has that motive changed? No one does anything without a reason even if that reason isn’t reasonable. (I can feel the kid in me here delighting in that play on words.) Is ‘motive’ the same as ‘inspiration’? What inspires me to write? Inspiration is not unlike attraction. I get ideas all the time, hundreds of the buggers running through my head every day, but I’m only drawn to a few and even fewer get developed into a piece of writing. It’s like women. I like women. I’ve always liked women. But I don’t have a type. I’ve considered the women I’ve had relationships throughout my life and the ones I would’ve liked to have had relationships and they have very little in common when it comes to looks, build, personality or intelligence. But each of them has that certain je ne sais quoi. Attraction is not unlike taste, in fact we talk about a man’s taste in women, but when I consider my palette there are all kinds of flavours and textures that appeal to me. I love chips and I probably could live off them forever but I would get bored with them eventually. And so it’s true with what drives me to write. Yet I can see certain recurring themes in my work. The earliest is a preoccupation with the notion of truth.

I was brought up in a religious household and the need to be honest and truthful in all things was a big thing—Satan was the father of the lie but we would know the truth and the truth would set us free—and yet quickly enough I found myself telling little fibs, quite naturally. I say no one taught me to lie but the reality was that I was surrounded by liars. All of us are. We aspire to be truth tellers and that’s not a bad thing to aspire to but it’s very hard to fight human nature. If there’s a single theme underlying my entire oeuvre it’s the search for truth. Even in the kid’s book we have a reclusive mole whose eyes are opened when a young and worldly-wise mouse (Fingal O’Mouse, would you believe) takes him on a trip to London. Twenty-odd years later who’s the protagonist in my first novel but a reclusive bookseller whose life is turned upside down by the appearance of a young man who purports to be the personification of the truth? In all my books you’ll find the same dynamic: ignorance forced to face the truth.

Orwell goes on:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives 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 he is living.

These four great motives are: Sheer egoism, Aesthetic enthusiasm, Historical impulse and Political purpose. He defines the first as:

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. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.

This is a dangerous one because I am clever. I don’t need to try to seem to be clever. I can’t help but be clever. I’ve no great need to appear cleverer than I am, however. Despite the fact being clever has often distanced me from people, I wish I was cleverer; the damage has been done. At school I never studied. I never felt as if I was studying. I never really got what the other kids were moaning about. To my mind there was only learning and learning was fun; it continues to be fun. Work is satisfying especially if you can be creative in that work. It’s what passes with me for play; play I find hard. Anyway I have a modicum of cleverness comprised of a fair amount of knowledge derived from fifty-four years’ worth of experience which distils down into a fair bit of understanding and a soupçon of actual honest-to-goodness wisdom and insight. I think it’s wrong not to share that. I don’t make more of it than it is—there’s so much stuff I know nothing about—but the stuff I do know is good stuff and I’d hate for it all to be lost when I shuffle off this mortal coil. It pleases me that when I die my daughter will have a small library on her bookshelf all written by me.

So what’s Aesthetic enthusiasm when it’s at home? According to Orwell:

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. 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.

200px-NoExit_coverIt’s not enough to say something that’s true or important. There are ways to say things, effective ways, and a lot of the time they’re neither fancy nor clever. Advertisers are masters in this regard and all you have to do is look at a book of quotations to realise that often all we remember from a work an author might have slaved years over is a line like, “Hell is other people.” I don’t know how long Sartre laboured over No Exit but I wonder how he would feel to know that that’s all most people know of his play and a lot of the people who know that don’t even know it was him that wrote it? But it’s a good line. It deserves to be remembered. It is the essence of the whole play. It’s what you take away with you.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (I wonder who first said that.) Not all writing—or art or music, come to think of it—is or ought to be beautiful because it’s asking us to experience or remember something unpleasant. The words ought to be well chosen and appropriate. They might not be beautiful but they should satisfy a particular need; they should be fit for purpose. I’m with Taylor Coleridge who said, “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.” Beauty is not mentioned.

Orwell has little to say on the subject of Historical impulse:

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

Seeing things as they are is not easy. We’re ill-equipped for the task. We don’t see, we perceive; we don’t remember, we imagine. We think because we’ve remembered something that we’ve remembered it accurately. And then there’s the problems caused when we attempt to translate our thoughts into words. What, for example, does Orwell mean when he talks about “true facts”? Is there such a thing as an untrue fact? I am continually impressed to find that lies are capable of containing the most profound truths. By ‘lies’ I mean ‘fictions’, made-up stuff. I’m not really interested in history. I’ve obviously been affected by it and am continuing to be affected by it but I think all important truths, the most profound truths, exist outwith any specific historical framework. I have very few pieces of writing that commemorate any kind of historical event. Here’s a rare (and not especially good) exception:


A million flowers died today,
maybe more

laid down at the gates of palaces
in public parks and private homes
at the mouth of a tunnel in France

by mothers, fathers and children,
dying men and old women,
all strangers to each other

but not to this sense of loss.

2 September, 1997

I can’t say I was entirely unmoved by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but—and this is unusual for me because I’m not much of a nature lover either—I was taken aback by the incredible number of flowers that we went through on the days leading up to her funeral. And every one of them died too. And to what purpose? To add a bit of colour to a bleak day?

Finally onto 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. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

I have no interest in party politics although Gerald Ford does get name-checked in a very, very old poem. I think politicians are all as bad as each other but they’ve all got some good in them too. Even the Nazis weren’t all bad; they’d never have got into power in the first place if they were all bad. But do I have a desire to “alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”? I’m not really much of a social animal. Groups of people don’t really interest me. I didn’t mind studying sociology, learning about all the different –ocracies for example, but I’ve always enjoyed psychology more. I don’t address groups in my writing. I’m only ever talking to one person. Before you improve society one needs to improve oneself. I address issues I am capable of addressing. Reading one of my poems isn’t going to change the world but it might change an individual and the world is comprised of billions of individuals so the effect I’m likely to have is going to be miniscule but as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

Orwell doesn’t say that a writer needs to have these four motives in equal measure:

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature—taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult—I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.

On-WritingHe also says nothing about writing to entertain or for financial gain. These are by-products of the writing process. Even for a writer like Stephen King. He’s lucky in that’s he’s able to write what he wants and others find the work entertaining and are willing to pay him for the pleasure of reading it. But that’s not why he writes; read his On Writing if you doubt me. He doesn’t need the money and yet he writes daily. I expect most writers these days don’t need the money. They have jobs that pay the bills and if their writing brings in a few quid extra then that’s a nice bonus. I think if I had to write in order to put bread on the table I’d feel very differently about my writing. I remember reading Hunger many years ago and disliking the fact that the writer had to bend his art to meet the needs of others.

Another thing Orwell never mentions is pleasure. A hobby is something one does for pleasure. Writing can be pleasurable—I’m enjoying writing this—but mostly it’s not. The pleasure comes on completion and is short-lived. Orwell concludes:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

He wrote this essay, as I said at the start, in 1946. He died in 1950. He had one book left in him. As it happens it was his masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and yet this is what he had to say about it beforehand:

I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.

That smacks so of Beckett. You know the line about failing better. Woody Allen is a great example here. In a 1976 interview in Rolling Stone he said, “I would like to fail a little for the public…What I want to do is go onto some areas that I’m insecure about and not so good at.” He admits he could be like the Marx Brothers (who were heroes and early influences of his) and make the same comic film every year but he didn’t want to do it. It was important for him to evolve, to risk failure, to risk failure in front of everyone. And his movies did that, going from the early slapstick humour of Sleeper to the darker Crimes and Misdemeanours and Match Point. I remember so well the fuss that was made when Interiors and Stardust Memories came out. He says, “If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.”

Stranger than Fiction coverThis is one of the reasons I’ve shied away from sequels. Been there; done that. I was actually a little disappointed with myself when I was working on my novella Exit Interview because I set it in the same universe as Living with the Truth and the situation is not entirely dissimilar to the setup in Stranger than Fiction; I felt it was unavoidable. When I sit down to edit it—which I leave for a long, long time usually—I may well try to distance the book a little; it stands on its own well enough; it doesn’t need the references even if they don’t hurt. Maybe I’m just doing what I always do when I’ve finished something new: I’m tearing it to pieces. The novelty of a new novel never lasts for long.

In an article written for the Daily Telegraph the playwright William Nicholson wrote:

In my play about C.S.Lewis, Shadowlands, I gave Lewis the line, ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ That has been my own experience. It’s through books that people I’ve never met have reached out to me, saying, ‘This is what matters most to me. Does it matter to you too?’ This feeds something very different to the appetite for entertainment. It feeds, I suppose, the hunger for meaning.

Ah, finally, meaning. In my novella, Joe Kaye is asked what he thinks the meaning of life is. His response?

[I]n my humble opinion meaning is the meaning of life. You need to be doing meaningful things for life to be worth living. It’s not enough to get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed and repeat ad infinitum ad nauseum. Life is like a pot. It can contain meaning or it can be left empty. It can be functional or decorative. You need to make a difference.

I confess: that’s me talking here, not Joe.

Of Orwell’s four primary drives I’d have to say that the third one is dominant within me, the desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity, to give those ‘facts’ meaning. What I write—what I’m writing right now—has to mean something. Otherwise, what’s the point? My books matter. My stories matter. My poems matter, even the not very good ones like ‘Death of an English Rose’. Every time I read it I’m reminded of that day and how I felt. The same happens when I pick up my novel The More Things Change. It means something to me that it’ll never mean to anyone else. I remember sitting at home working on it when my wife phoned me and told me to turn on the news; there was something happening in the skies over New York. There’s nothing in the book that reflects that but a book only contains spaces for meaning. The actual meaning is jammed into these nooks and crannies by the readers. Some are a bad fit. Occasionally though one reader comes along who has all the missing pieces. At least in theory one has. Personally I’m still waiting. But while I’m waiting I keep writing.

You can read Orwell’s entire essay here. There’s also a blog called Why I Write which is also worth checking out. Let me leave you with one or two entries:

#184 – Because who I am on paper is better than who I am in reality.
#181 – Because I can.
#156 – Because I don’t know what else to do.
#144 – To get revenge without going to prison.
#88 – Because I like writing better than talking to people.
#45 – Because it’s a part of who I am.
#14 – Because I want to recreate the world.


Jonathan Chant said...

I devoured Orwell as an adolescent. Returning to him recently, I find my enthusiasm for him is just as strong as ever. Strangely, I prefer the earlier novels, Burmese Days through to A Clergyman's Daughter rather than the last two for which he is most remembered for. I remember well the essay that you are drawing from.

The quote from your character, Joe, regarding meaning rings very true.

Kirk said...

I write for all four reasons, but I guess the third is strongest for me, too.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve not read those two, Jonathan. I’ve read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four of course and also Down and Out in London and Paris and as I enjoyed them all I’d have no problems reading any of the other three. Six novels, eh? I thought there’d be more. I’ve written six books. I’m always taken aback when I notice that some great writer’s only actually produced a handful of novels. You always imagine there’d be loads. Camus only wrote five; F Scott Fitzgerald, four; Jane Austen, six; and the number who’ve only ever written one novel (and yet are dead famous) is just scary.

I struggle with this one probably the most, Kirk. Even in articles like this I realise I’m only giving an impression of the truth. Yes, of course, there are certain facts of which I can be certain but you don’t get much of a story if you simply present the facts. Motives and feelings are not simple things. I’ve very rarely just happy or only sad. I can be sad and disappointed and disillusioned and bitter and annoyed all at the same time and who’s to say what the correct ratio is between them all or if indeed that ratio stays the same for any length of time? Now a fictional character can just be sad and that’s it. Or maybe sad and a bit disappointed.

Ken Armstrong said...

Sorry I'm late to this, Jim. I enjoyed it a lot. It makes me ask the questions, of course, why do I write? I don't think I know. I *long* to write and that drives me to the desk to do stuff and it always has. However some instances of having my writing 'seen' by others has made me at least a little addicted to the buzz of being seen. What I write is now coloured by the liklihood of it being 'shown' in some way. I fear that's a backward step but what can ye do?

Jim Murdoch said...

I get the longing to write, Ken. It’s why I’ve ended up spending so much time blogging and reviewing because I get to go through the mechanics of writing. See! I’m writing now. Wheeeee! But it’s not writing-with-a-capital-w. I’d rather be writing-writing now than doing this but this is all I seem to be able to do bar the odd poem these days. Talking of poems I have one in draft at the moment about writing the last stanza of which goes:

        Sometimes not enough
        has to be enough.

I started all this blogging malarkey to promote my writing. Now it’s become my writing. I’m now terribly terribly conscious of “being seen” as you put it and so I write for an audience and less and less for myself which is where all this started and frankly that’s the only writing I care about. It’s not a backwards step for me since I’ve never cared that much about even being published although it was nice when it happened. It’s a sideways step. It’s a cul-de-sac.

This is not enough. I’m subsisting on this kind of writing. It takes away the ache. People sometimes compare writing to masturbation and the comparison is not an unreasonable one because that’s all some writing is, a relief, a “number three” as I referred to it in Living with the Truth but real writing, real … no, that deserves to be in capitals … REAL WRITING is an act of love. It’s about passion. It’s about feelings. Yes, oh yes, it’s about getting rid of the ache but it’s so much more than that. I don’t get up the morning desperate to write another blog and I certainly don’t go to sleep at night dreaming of book reviews.

As you can probably gather I’m going through one of my what’s-the-point-of-all-this? phases. It’ll pass. Maybe it’ll pass. Writing’s become a job. Okay, I’m lucky that I don’t have a real job too since I barely have the energy to do this one. (No, that’s not true; I don’t even have the energy to do this one these days. Bit of a worry actually.) I’m supposed to be editing The More Things Change but I haven’t the heart. If I’m going to publish another book this year it’ll probably have to be a book of poems. Maybe once the weather’s warmed up I’ll feel more like it.

Ken Armstrong said...

The weather is unremitting and is doubtless playing some kind of havoc with us all. Hang in there, Spring is round the corner although Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow earlier today and we all know what that means. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

When my cockatiel sees his shadow he starts to do the hoppy dance, Ken, and we all know what that means. (It means: Can I have sex with you? in case you didn’t know.) He’s a strange bird. Takes after his owner. And mind your own business when it comes to me and my shadow.

Ken Armstrong said...

Haha! :)

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