In the past few months I have been reflecting on my desire to write, and George Orwell’s 1949 essay “Why I Write” gave me a framework to explore how I feel. I’m not sure I can be considered a “writer”, thus the parenthetical in the title, but, like Joan Didion, I’ll use Orwell’s essay as the main source of inspiration for this introductory post.
In his essay, George Orwell states, “I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development.” My early development occurred in a very loving and comfortable environment. I think that’s what contributed to my courteous and pleasant disposition. I was a sensitive and competitive kid. If I failed or heard of a hardship befalling someone I knew, I’d cry right away.
I remember noticing how much my sister read, and I took up reading to ensure I wasn’t outdone. I was not allowed to play M-rated games, so I read comic books and novels based in the Halo or Warhammer universe to sate my prepubescent bloodlust. I recounted these tales to my classmates, as well as any stand-up routines or funny videos I watched. I got into it, and, without intending to, developed a sense for storytelling. I think my sensitivity played a part. I vicariously felt what others felt in a bunch of mediums, whether it was music, movies, or books. I loved the drama, the suspense, and the action you feel in your core when experiencing stories. An inkling for storytelling developed into my desire to write now. I can be empathetic to characters, as well as an audience, to best convey a story.
Sensitivity isn’t the defining characteristic of my desire to write. Orwell lists four primary reasons for writing:
- Sheer egoism
- Aesthetic Enthusiasm
- Historical Impulse
- Political Purpose
As a young man I had a historical impulse, or desire to see things as they are, and, though I didn’t know it, a bit of an ego, too. I found a lot of joy in knowing things and relaying those things to others. I found the content I digested fascinating for many reasons, but part of it was because I took pride in knowing things and sharing my knowledge with others. I wanted to be valued for my intellect.
Growing up means the reasons you do what you do develop, too. Orwell states that these reasons “must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.” Certainly, I’ve developed more of a political and aesthetic sense since my youth. I still want to see things as they are but am aware that my own biases can cloud this historical impulse.
The most interesting reason to me, though, is egoism. As Orwell says, “It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.” I don’t consider myself to be naturally creative, and I don’t think my insights or experience are very special. Still, I want my writing to be viewed as creative and my insights to be especially impactful.
I can vainly see myself in images of Kerouac at the typewriter, or Vonnegut staring pensively, or Camus with a listless cigarette hanging from his mouth. It’s hard to not be romantic about the characters that make up literary history. But more than vanity, I’m pushed by a desire for immortality. All I want is for someone down the line to pick up something I’ve written and be impacted by it.
I remember when I began seriously thinking about this kind of immortality; a few years ago, I bought a pulp sci-fi novel by Wyman Guin called The Standing Joy. It was a small and worn book with a strange cover. I’m hard-pressed to remember a reason for purchasing it, except for the fact that I was in a bookstore on vacation and felt the need to buy a book. It turned out to be one of my favorite stories. I’ll spare you the summary because it’s what the author’s life showed me that’s relevant.
That story is patchy. A Google search for Wyman Guin does not reveal much. I haven’t been able to find any photographs of him. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as a pharmacologist and advertising executive “known for his writing”. Not a “writer”. Although he died in 1989, that book made me think and laugh more than two decades later. I share the story with people and am telling you about Mr. Guin in this instant. In his work, he lives on, like Orwell, Didion, Hemingway, Austen, and Baldwin. Again, how can you not romanticize this?
There is one more reason that I’m writing. I want to tell things as they are, to have people see me in a positive light, and to live on after I die. But lack of certainty, the inability to control how others view you, and mortality are as much a reality as these desires. And these dark feelings paralyzed me for years. Not just in writing, but in life. The final, and most important, reason I’m writing is that I’ve learned to accept both sides of reality. You need acceptance to act as a fulcrum between these two counterpoints of being.
I only learned acceptance through recent suffering; not just my own, but the suffering everyone has gone through these past two years. Pandemics, isolation, and division have sowed fear and depression. Suffering is at the core of every life on the planet. I see no way around this insurmountable suffering. In fact, I know every solution comes with its own sort of suffering, unforeseen, yet inescapable.
However, from this bleak realization came acceptance. Not a drive to fix every problem or mold the world in my image of right and wrong. No, suffering simply made me accept suffering, and a weight was lifted off my chest. The pressure I put on myself to find a way around suffering is gone and I’m able to write. I’m able to accept my past and use it to understand my present. I’m able to accept the fears of mortality, how others see me, and lack of certainty, but write anyway. As Orwell declares, “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.” And so, I’ll write.