This is Orwell’s answer to that question all writers attempt to answer at some point. It is almost a biography of Orwell’s writing life and interestingly was published a couple of years before his highly influential Ninety Eighty-four.
It’s charming to think of the young Orwell knowing he would grow up to be a writer and spending lonely days making up stories and imagining conversations. Although he can’t quite seem to put his finger on the cause of his compulsion to write as child, he does say “Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”
He mentions a love of words, which perhaps one must have to be able to work with them, but then in a very Orwellian way, sets out the four great motives that he believes every writer has to some degree:
1. Sheer egoism.
2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
4. Political purpose.
No prizes for guessing which was Orwell’s greatest motivation. He elaborates on each of these with reasonable conviction.
The first is about having a desire to prove one’s cleverness and be known and remembered. A desire to live beyond your years, “to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc.”
The second motivation is my favourite. Orwell explains aesthetic enthusiasm as taking pleasure in “the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.” I feel like this should be a strong motivation to write – especially perhaps poetry – but Orwell says “The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or a writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons.” !
The historical impulse is about collecting facts, finding out the truth and storing them for posterity. Political purpose, Orwell suggests, is the desire to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Orwell of course was starting to do this already, and went on to have a huge impact on the way people thought about society, manipulation and control with Nineteen Eighty-four. He was clearly thinking a great deal about these concepts in this essay: “I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. 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.”
Orwell ends his essay somewhat harshly:
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. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And 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.