Reactor

George Orwell’s Essay on Creativity: Writers are Complex

by An Xiao on May 1, 2012

Picture of George Orwell which appears in an old acreditation for the BNUJ. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

LOS ANGELES — One of my favorite websites, Longform.org, just announced they’re celebrating two years of operation. Longform is an iPad app and site that pulls the best long-form writing from the web. It’s a simple format, as they describe: “We recommend four articles per day — some old, some new, each with a succinct, non-linkbaity description.”

To celebrate, the site has listed their Top 50 of each of the past two years. Most, as they note, relate to “Sex! Murder” Or: this is still the internet”, and it’s not a big surprise that sex sells online.  But #15 from Year One caught my eye. Not only does it have little to do with sex and murder, it was also written in 1946.  And it was written by George Orwell.

Orwell’s “Why I Write” is a gem, and I’m glad it made it into the Top 50. It’s a great, honest piece for any creative who often asks, “Why do I create?” Orwell is a writer, so naturally he writes from that perspective:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.

Orwell walks through these motivations — “sheer egoism”, “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse” and “political purpose” — and he also talks through his early love for language as a child, his discovery of his literary talents, and the time he spent in Burma (an experience that provoked another famous essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” which gives insight into why authoritarian figures do what they do).

He starts out identifying his noble-sounding political inclinations in his work — “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.” — but his honesty points at a more complex drive for writers (and artists):

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.

And perhaps what made the essay so popular on Longform.org is that he hints at writing a new novel, and about his uncertainty of its success. That’s hope for any creative person struggling with a new piece: we can almost certainly assume that said novel became the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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