An Unsettling Motivation

As a person who is not very comfortable with writing, I always wondered what it was that made me draw back to this desire to take what was in my head and write it on a piece of paper. If someone had asked me why I write, I would probably say it was because of pictures in my head that wouldn’t go away. But after reading George Orwell’s Why I Write, the motivators described started to hang over my thoughts and made me question my “true” motives.

It was the “sheer ego” that struck me the most. In general, I knew that there was a motivation in artists to share their talent with the rest of the world and be acknowledged for it. But for Orwell to say it so blatantly as the first motivator surprised me because I didn’t expect him to mention it. It was refreshing for him to mention the very carnal, obvious desire to be known first, instead of the typical love of art. As I thought more about it, the idea was unsettling because it directly pointed to a negative quality of humanity. And it made me wonder if a writer’s motivation is less about the art of writing, and more on promoting the self, which sounded depressing to me. I felt like I was re-entering into the very thing I had tried so hard to escape from.

As a student interested in composition, I surrounded myself with talented teachers who all told me of the tough world of an artist. In the beginning, I would laugh it off. But the more they talked, the more I realized how bitter a lot of these people had become. Orwell describes “sheer ego” 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…there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.” This struck me so much because it was what my composition teacher had talked about when she tried to convince me not to be a composer. She described how she had sacrificed everything, even pushing her family to move around so that she could meet with professors and compose. She said it was a selfish, bitter lifestyle that made the heart hard, and she wanted me to stay out of it. In the end, I couldn’t handle it, and I gave it up.

It’s uncomfortable to think that all artists who are successful and famous are all vain and selfish people whose sole ambition is to be recognized and remembered. And yet it makes me wonder that if these people didn’t have that kind of ambition, would they have been able to reach the top? Or would they have given up from the beginning, like me? To be honest, I’ve definitely been motivated by the “sheer ego” that Orwell described. So I wonder how much of this is true for everybody. Is it a necessary motivation in order to survive the world of creative arts? It would be too much of a generalization to say that all writers write just for the ego. There are probably different levels to how much of it is ego and how much of it is the love of writing. Because if it were all just pure ego, somehow I feel like the writing wouldn’t be as genuine. There has to be some appreciation of the art form. But I think Orwell is reaching an honest and unsettling point that deep down inside, we all have that desire to be known by others. I just hope that becoming a writer doesn’t make me vain and selfish, because that is unsettling.


2 thoughts to “An Unsettling Motivation”

  1. Hey Rachel,

    I think this is a really interesting reflection on Orwell’s sheer egoism motive. I definitely struggled with this concept as well because I find it hard to just create something purely off of selfish reasons. While I understand the thrill of being published, I can’t agree with just wanting to be talked about, I would rather start a conversation with my writing.

    I think that Orwell might have been going a little overboard with this claim, or that it can definitely be taken the wrong way. I don’t think he was necessarily saying that writers write just to become famous; rather, that the ultimate goal is to write with the purpose of being heard by a widespread audience and you reach this status of fame subsequently.

    I took a step back and thought about the pieces of Orwell that I had read, “Animal Farm” and “1984.” Both of these pieces were so political and persuasive and contained very important messages. I think while ultimately these pieces made Orwell so well-known and talked about, I think the underlying factor is that he was making a piece of art, he was creating something that he believed needed to be talked about, and in doing so he ignited his career and his name. I guess what I’m saying is that you have to look at the sheer egoism motive and think about how it works in conjunction with some of the other motives or how it could potentially be a positive consequence of creating a great work.

    Then again, there are probably artists who create something just to be talked about. I guess that’s the selfishness in humanity!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Very similar to you, I found Orwell’s mention and emphasis on the egoism aspect of why many people write to be very interesting, thought provoking, but at the same time, it made a lot of sense to me as well. While I don’t think at any point you’ll become a vainer person as a result of writing more often, I find that the vanity aspect fuels many different aspects of the writing process. For some, I think the vanity issue may be a quest for some fame or recognition, but for others, writing might be another way to ‘put their best foot forward’ or to give a better, fuller representation of themselves and that they aren’t necessarily seeking any type of fame. I think that you do make a very solid point though in noting that vanity is a pretty wide spread motivator for many writers, but I think that within that vanity, there are just as many varying factors and forces at play as well, some more noble than others, however.

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