Setting aside the need to put bread on the table, George Orwell identified these four “great motives” for writing:
- sheer egoism (desire to appear clever, impress others, have statues erected in one’s honor, etc.)
- aesthetic enthusiasm (desire to create beauty or share valuable experiences, love of words and how they fit together)
- historical impulse (desire to put down true facts, including for posterity)
- political purpose (desire to nudge the world in a given direction).
Out of curiosity, I thought I’d take a look at my own reasons for writing vis-à-vis Orwell’s great motives. Every writer wrestles with the question of why they write, why they bother to spend hours, days, and years on a craft with no promise of success, reward, or even readership.
Here is a rough breakdown of how I would divvy up my writing motivations within Orwell’s rubric: sheer egoism (5%), aesthetic enthusiasm (65%), historical impulse (5%), and political purpose (25%).
While it’s nice to be commended, I find the ego-feeding motivation ultimately unsatisfactory. I crave neither accolades nor the limelight. (Would I love enough success to write full-time? Absolutely, although more for the time to write than the recognition.) What appeals most to me about writing is the possibility of creating something beautiful, something that entertains, delights, and moves an audience, all while putting forward my own aesthetic about what I find valuable in a culture and the world. And while, yes, I would be happy if my writing shifted the world in a gentler, kinder, healthier, wiser, and more environmentally ethical direction, I also recognize the many powerful forces already in competition in the arena of cultural change—and thus the difficulty of effecting change. That said, change does occur in steps of all different sizes, even baby steps, even mouse steps and mite steps, and I consider even one person emerging from the last page of a book with an altered worldview as something significant.
Another motivation stems from the fact that many writers are book lovers. Thus, for myself and I would guess many others, part of the appeal of writing, despite the hardships, is the desire to create the very thing we revere—a book. This motivation, like most of my strongest ones, I would put in Orwell’s aesthetic enthusiasm category.
Strangely, fully comprehending one’s motivation to write can be a real challenge. Orwell addresses this fact: “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.”
Some of the best writing is motivated by powerful historical or life events. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that, “A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which has sold 100 million copies worldwide and is one of the bestselling books of all time, was written during the upheaval of World War II. Likewise, Orwell considers his best work to have been a response to the Spanish war and other events of 1936 and 1937. He wrote, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”
Lastly, while Orwell did not address writing as a means to pay the bills, I would say that a hefty motivation for my writing is the pursuit of a writing career, and all that comes along with it: creativity, flexibility, autonomy. The freedom to pursue whatever is most interesting to me. The satisfaction from entertaining with words and stories.
The motivations to write are varied and complex. Many people attempt it, few succeed. But again and again books do appear—just often enough to kindle sparks of hope in the aspiring writer—that resonate with readers, and sometimes even disrupt the course of the world.