Revisiting George Orwell: Why I Write in the 21st Century

Keith Wain revisits the 1946 George Orwell essay "Why I Write" by looking at the relevance of each of the four key points in the digital era.
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Keith Wain revisits the 1946 George Orwell essay "Why I Write" by looking at the relevance of each of the four key points in the digital era.

[Editor's Note: You can revisit the original essay "Why I Write" by George Orwell here.]

We had just ended a productive critique group. Each of us had taken our turn lauding each other’s writing strengths and gently prodding the open sores of our stories. I am fortunate to have a critique group wherein discussions are valuable and enjoyable. Nonetheless, over the past few months I have left the group feeling disheartened and hassled by a punky little question: Why do I keep writing?

Until recently, I had been able to keep this question at bay, assuring myself with trite expressions like Persistence spares no idling. Or the dreamier, I have a story to tell. Sometimes I kept it practical with I want to write well, so I must keep practicing.

But I have been a successful writer only in that I have finished many writing projects I started.

So why do I, why do most writers, want to write—and write well—when it’s clear to any digital literate person that anyone can write whatever they want however they want? In other words, everyone is a writer and no one really cares.

Having felt the appropriate amount of reflection (which for me is lots of deep thinking that reveals obvious truths) and a satisfactory amount of melancholy (pout until I realize I have too much time on my hands) I revisited George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write,” written over seventy years ago. Orwell describes four motives that drive a writer. They are as relevant today as they were then:

  1. Sheer Egoism
  2. Aesthetic Enthusiasm
  3. Historical Impulse
  4. Political Purpose

At a glance, these motives could apply to all of us and our ideals. For a writer in the 21st century where egos shout from every screen, confessions of beauty test the patience of a STEM culture, truth and fact drown in a quagmire of falsehoods, and political purpose is a means to narcissistic freedom, Orwell’s motives must adapt. They need amending to better explain where a contemporary writer finds his or her force.

I started by amending Aesthetic Enthusiasm since it was the beauty of words that initially drew me to writing.

Amendment 2.1 –Joy

I write because I enjoy it. Tinkering with words, to puzzle them into something new, has always amused me. I can still see myself in a small yellow vented back chair with chrome legs at a long table in my kindergarten room spelling Keith with different color crayons. It was an assignment that warmed me like a hug, writing my name vertically, diagonally, and backwards. I rearranged the letters and inserted new letters I had created.

Most writers write because they like it. Writers who proclaim writing is an awful chore are much vainer than the rest us. Such an attitude is subtle prejudice, a jab at those who cannot or do not write. Such a writer is mindless of another’s circumstance or ability. A writer is not a person given a super power they didn’t ask for by some Greek god. And those who say they wish they could not write but must, or say they are tortured by their writing gifts, should choose a different occupation or hobby. To date, no one has saved the world with writing.

This is not to say writing is always joyful. In his essay, Orwell himself confessed, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting, struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” But with anything we love and care for, pain collaborates with all feelings, even our most euphoric, to provide that ethereal fuel for life.

Writing is a choice. Somewhere near the core of this choice is the amusement of seeing our mind come out into the world. At times I have thought I write because I stubbornly cling to some moldy foolish preadolescent dream. This is not the case. No matter how painful it can get, at the core of my writing is joy.

Revisiting George Orwell

Amendment 3.1 – Pointing Out Misinformation

Social media and 21st century communication technology has subjected us to an amount of falsehoods and misinformation unimaginable to those living in 1946 when Orwell wrote. My face is sometimes locked in a cringe because of the steady stream of bullshit spewing around me.

I love discovering truths and seeing “things as they are,” as Orwell says. But really I’d just like to point out the lies and falsehoods that keep me from thinking clearly. It is not enjoyable to discover the diamond you hold is bullshit in disguise. I write because I want all of us to avoid this mistake.

Amendment 4.1 – Community Purpose

Compelled by guilt or sorrow, shame or compassion, I write because I see what is happening in the world near and far. While I may not be able to “alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after,” I can influence people’s desire to push a community in a healthy and practical direction.

I agree with Orwell that most writing is political. The novel I am currently editing is certainly political. But writing in the 21st century is also smaller than that. It performs the jobs of improving humanity and the network of trust in a smaller community. It gets its hands dirty by digging into realities rather than ideologies. I think all writers begin everything they write from an identity forged in very local types of realities. These local realities show a writer unique examples of what works and does not for helping each other.

Adapting Orwell’s first motive to the 21st century was most difficult. For a long time I thought it should be left alone.

Amendment 1.1 – Control and Power

Egoism certainly motivates me to write. Knowing a group of people discussed something I wrote would give me great happiness. Seeing my high school English teacher, who at one time scolded my writing as unreadable, come across my mature works and drip with the guilty sweat of remorse would make me giggle.

However, in the 21st century, where technology has made it possible to see how small I can be and when it is so easy to see the chaos outside of my own little world, I feel at once the need to control something, which feels like an act of self-preservation. This need to control is motivated from without, and it is something I have felt before.

As a youngster, I loved romping with my imagination through the woods on our family farm. All day long I performed heroic and powerful deeds. The silent power of the wilderness was a model of space wherein I was safe to develop a sense of self. As I got older, my imaginary worlds in the woods moved onto paper. On blank pages, I could create the space of power and control I had seen in the woods.

I wrote to create, not to express. To this day, my best writing comes out of a desire to create. Oftentimes I’m unconscious of my expression even though it is there in the words and syntax I use. If I begin thinking about the feeling or expression I wish to exude, if I roil my feelings and words too consciously, my writing fails. It is the desire to create, the power to control, that drives my writing.

I want the power to control an aspect of our shared chaos. I want to offer something like a yoga session in the center of an arena around which others wildly race. Writing is a model of space used to contain an aspect of reality and create a world wherein we have power to control how we process that reality—in a way that is beneficial to our sense of self. The power in creating my own world and offering it to others as a model of how they can create and control theirs motivates nearly all my work.

Over the past twenty years I have written stories, poems, and essays. Some of my writing has been published. Some of it has gone directly in the bin. Most of it sits quietly, still unreadable. In short, I am not a writer like Orwell or any of those insanely talented and intelligent authors.

But I write for the same reasons Orwell described in his essay seventy-three years ago. Though his motives may wear new clothes and hang out in a much different world, they are essentially the core elements that keep any person grounded in the feeling and belief that what they do is important to themselves and their world.

Read about why other writers write in this WD post.

Have personal experiences you want to share? WD University's Writing the Personal Essay 101: Fundamentals will teach you how to avoid the dreaded responses of "so what?" and "I guess you had to be there" by utilizing sensory details, learn to trust your writing intuitions, and develop a skilled internal editor to help with revision. Register today!

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