Tuesday, January 18, 2011

George Orwell's "Why I Write" a Primer for Aspiring Writers

George Orwell's 1946 essay "Why I Write" is a masterful mix of autobiography, politics, and writing instruction. Aspiring writers would get from this article at the least an inspirational gem and possibly a modus operandi.

In this 2,700-word, highly readable reflection, Orwell implies that the nature of a writer and the drive to write reveal themselves at an early age: “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” He writes that he began writing poetry at age four or five and published in a local newspaper his first poem at eleven. An overarching theme in the childhood segment of this piece is the value of modeling one’s style after admired writers.

Orwell’s four great motives for writing prose are what he calls sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose, concluding: "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing."

And that he achieved supremely. Despite dying at age 46, Orwell wrote voluminously on causes of social justice, and he did so with great style to boot, most famously with Animal Farm and 1984. My favorite quote from the essay comes in the final paragraph: "One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane."