I’ve started teaching journalistic feature writing again at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, which prompts me to think more deeply about journalism and why I write myself. Of course, many great writers have explored the question, including George Orwell, whose personal essay “Why I write,” was published in 1946, two years before Orwell wrote 1984.
In his essay, Orwell says he always knew writing was his calling. As a child, it helped him combat loneliness, and as a teenager, he discovered the joy of playing with words, determined “to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions…”
At 19, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, and the experience would trigger his natural dislike for authority. He was stationed in Mandalay, which he described as a disagreeable, dusty town that had “five main products that begin with P, namely pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests, and prostitutes.” Disillusioned, he quit the police to try his hand at writing, eventually washing dishes in Paris, where he penned “Down and Out in Paris and London,” a memoir about poverty and those living on society’s margins.
These were formative years for Orwell, who wrote prolifically during some of Europe’s most politically tumultuous years—the poverty and illness post WWI, followed by the rise of fascism—which stirred his anger to fight against injustice and for people’s right to govern themselves.
In “Why I write,” Orwell says there are four great motives for writing:
The first is for the sake of our ego, the desire to be talked about or remembered, not necessarily for selfish reasons but as a way to share your natural gifts. I can relate. I always wanted to see my name in print because it was proof that I exist and matter (a healthy urge, methinks). Part of mattering is publicly sharing my ideas, knowing they might contribute somehow to the greater whole.
Orwell calls the second motivation aesthetic enthusiasm, a yearning to document the world’s beauty, including savouring the beauty of well-arranged words. Journalist Joan Didion, who also wrote a personal essay “Why I Write,” in 1977, describes how as an undergrad, she could never think abstractly. Instead, her attention kept “veering… back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered… the peripheral,” like “a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.”
I would call this a writer’s talent for observation, that well-honed ability to take in the infinite nuances of life, character, and psyche. It’s about the mastery and art of well-chosen words, not to mention the sheer joy of seeing certain ideas, perceptions, or words strung together. It's also about sharing perspective--we've all felt and struggled through things, and as writers, we possess the gift of giving voice to life's intricacies, its pitfalls, our longings and triumphs.
Orwell says the third motivation for writing is a historical impulse, the urge to collect facts and preserve the truth for the future. And the fourth is political purpose, our human desire to change the world by influencing others and how they think. Orwell spent his career taking accountability for the state of the world, and I think most writers share his drive to make a difference. Writing triggers people to pause and reflect; it can also give them courage as they wrestle with the unexpected.
Personally, I have a drive to guide others, sharing the observations I’ve gleaned from interviewing people from all walks of life, often those whose voices go unheard. I also want to get across the preciousness, wonder, challenges, complexity and depths of what it means to be human.
Also, in this era of fake news, misinformation, and exaggeration, I think identifying fact from fiction is crucial. I write to persuade others of the underlying universal truths that govern our lives. I write, hoping to wake them up so they can engage meaningfully.
Finally, I do think Orwell was missing one motivation that Didion touches on right away. She writes, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”
That’s why I write, too: writing shows me what I think. As I write and explore ideas, investigating multifaceted details, it allows me time to unravel my thoughts, activating them rather than letting them languish in my head. For me, writing is a process of wrestling with the creative chaos in my mind, encouraging and allowing the wisdom of my inner voice to emerge and be heard. To speak and understand its truth.