Why I Write (Part I)

This week I read a book by George Orwell titled Why I Write. It consists of four essays:

  • Why I Write
  • The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius
  • A Hanging
  • Politics and the English language.

Although the book is named after the first essay, the largest part of the volume is actually dedicated to the second essay.

Why I Write is a short essay telling how Orwell evolved from a five or six year old child (I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer) to his by-then chosen path of political writing in 1946. People who wish to write will find that this article resonates with some of their own experiences and probably agree that the reasons for writing fluctuate from time to time and from individual to individual.

I always thought one cannot write well unless one writes from her own experience and direct observations. The writer in this sense would be at the center of the writings produced. It is her deeply buried inner demon being woken by the external events, it is her most truthful feeling and perception of the environment expressed in words. For this, I have been both fascinated and frightened by writing. I fear that if I were to give in to that inner demon to write most fearlessly and truthfully, it would be like walking naked in a crowded farmer market both physically and spiritually. On second thought, under such circumstances, I would be more interested in savoring the delicious heirloom tomatoes from local farmers and forget that my writing has exposed my thoughts in the bright daylight to be judged. I occasionally wonder how much of this fear of expression is due to my years of growing up in China. Those years were good and peaceful, but unavoidably left some cultural marks on me, even though the marks have weakened gradually over time.

In this essay Orwell pointed out the influence that early development has on a writer’s motives of writing, with examples of temperament and atmosphere. He also wrote “one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality”. This provokes a lot of my recent thinking on what makes good writing and how the books I recently read fit into this metric.

George Orwell wrote about the four motives for writing besides the need to earn a living: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. In every writer, the proportions of each motive may vary at any specific time, it may also fluctuate over time. Reading this essay prompted me to ponder my motives. We will have to leave that to be the focus of another article later. For now, suffice to say that I recognise traces of myself in these four motives.

As for Orwell:

Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Further examining of his own motive:

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. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience…. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

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. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

Upon reflection, my demon is passionate for words and their compositions, the languages penetrating the past, current and future humanity. It craves for reading great works and marvels at the unimaginable capabilities of great writers to express the indescribable poignantly. It also enjoys dictionaries more than chocolate.

George Orwell spent five years in what he regarded as an unsuitable profession: working in the Indian Imperial Police during the 1920s. His essay A Hanging describes the execution of a criminal in a jail in Burma during this time. The prisoners were referred as “condemned men” with unspecified crimes. This Hindu prisoner was no different. Condemned to hanging, he had no name and no mention of the crime he committed. The superintendent of the jail was impatient with this routine-like business, “For God’s sake hurry up, Francis (the head jailer). The man ought to be have been dead by this time. Aren’t you ready yet?” Others were taking orders or doing what they routinely do in such cases. Indifferent. A large woolly dog out of nowhere came to the jail yard barking loudly, dashed for the prisoner to be executed, jumped and tried to lick the prisoner’s face. The superintendent’s patience ran out and he ordered the guards to catch and remove the dog. George Orwell described each scene: the prisoner walking closer and closer to the gallows, his hanging, the superintendent poking the dead body to conclude the seemingly routine business of a morning. Each scene described with the exact style that he advocated in the fourth essay of this book: Politics and the English language.

The writing consists of short and simple words, depicts precisely the people and the scene, and brings a reader with any imaginative mind right into the center of the events.

Take this passage as an example:

And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissue forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tench of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

After the execution, came the last scene “we all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.” Although not a single word was directly criticizing the British rule in this essay, undoubtedly Orwell’s years in Burma had significantly influenced his views, particularly on colonialism.