Everyone knows that one guy…

Or that writer, as the case may be. Reading George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” I found his list of “motives” for writing to be strikingly true to everything I know about people who write.

“Sheer egoism” as bluntly as Orwell puts it, is one of the foremost reasons many people enjoy writing; the delicious possibility that others will read what you have written, declare you brilliant and put you down in the history books. None of us like to admit this one, of course. It isn’t delicate.

“Aesthetic enthusiasm” is as common as egoism, and nearly everyone who writes seems to love to make things pretty. I have writer friends who will stop dead on the side walk to contemplate the beauty of some old tree, perfectly aware of the cliche of it all. I identify the most with the second part of Orwell’s paragraph, the part about the pamphleteer who “may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc.” I want my sentences to look good, to sound lovely rolling off the tongue and reverberating in the brain, and picky little things like commas and margins accomplish all sorts of special effects if deployed correctly.

“Historical Impulse” is something I have encountered mostly in the company of my fellow political science majors. Something about the social sciences really brings out the chronicler in everyone. Truth is sometimes such a nebulous thing, and to have it all written down accurately for future generations of poli sci majors feels like securing certainty for someone at least.

“Political Purpose,” for me, is less a motive for just writing than way of life. I am part of an activist group on campus, and have spent numerous evenings posting fliers in hopes that they will, in some small way, “push the world in a certain direction.” As Orwell asserts, every piece of writing has some political agenda, something to sell. The other three motives for writing all come back to this desire for influence of this kind. Promoting oneself is futile unless you can effect change by your prominence, aesthetics are absolutely necessary for persuasion, and history is simply the objective canvas for politics’ normative doodling. In the end, as with most worthwhile pursuits, the motives for writing come down to persuasion.

Perhaps Orwell’s motives for writing rang so true for me because they are my own motives. However, I would argue that they are, if not universal, relatively common among writers who simply want to be remembered, to create beautiful works, to record the truth, and most importantly, to affect change.

2 thoughts to “Everyone knows that one guy…”

  1. Your post made me grin. You’re right – it is always hard to acknowledge the indelicate motives in our lives, but so often these are the things that rule us, the impulses and desires that we can’t quite let go of. Of course everyone has their own reasons for writing, but Orwell does seem to hit the proverbial nail on the head in each one of his motivations listed.
    In Orwell’s time the idea of the personal being political was not taken to be as self-evident as it is today, but even now it’s interesting how many of us tend to resist the idea that their writing (or even everyday actions) have to do with politics at all – personal or not. For you, at least, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I wish I could say the same for me!

  2. I love your exploration of Orwell’s Aesthetic enthusiasm. I completely agree that writers like to make things look pretty. As a perfectionist, that is one of my goals each time I write. I love it when I can look at articles I’ve written and really be proud of the beauty of my work.

    I also agree that the motives for writing come down to persuasion.Whether it be persuading your teacher to give you a good grade on a paper assignment, persuading the public to try the new product you wrote a review for, or persuading fashionistas to try the new trends you talk about in your blog.

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