George Orwell on his own writing

I think we should file this one under ‘B’ for Bitter old Bastard. George Orwell had this to say, about his own writing:

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. 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.

I can’t say I agree with all of that, not by a long way. But it does provide some interesting food for thought. I came across the quote on Cat Sparks’ Facebook wall and I think Margo Lanagan summed it up best in her comment:

Second half is halfway sensible; first half—well, wasn’t HE a drama queen.

Yes. Yes, he really was. Writing a book really is hard work, and you often question your sanity in the process. But it’s bloody brilliant too. Nothing horrible about it. Of course, our real underlying prime motivators for writing are obscure. Most of us may never really know exactly why we do it, other than that we simply can’t not do it.

Anyway, as I said, an interesting quote and it’s given me pause for thought. If nothing else, there’s one line in there that’s absolute gold:

Good prose is like a windowpane.

Meditate on that one, Grasshopper.


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5 thoughts on “George Orwell on his own writing

  1. Of course the question is raised: why does *anyone* do what they do? I don’t think the special thing about writers is the central mystery of their calling so much as their tendency to ponder the central mystery aloud: replace writer/writing with baker/baking (say) in Orwell’s comment and the drama queen sort of leaps out at you. “Baker’s don’t *bake* – they make a pile of flour and open a *vein…*”

  2. I find it fascinating that so many established writers make such statements like it’s a universal experience. I have only written one work approaching novel length, and there were points where I struggled but I’m realising there is a real ecstatic rush in getting that first draft down. The creative orgasm (too much?). The redrafting/editing process is harder, but I hope I never come to feel that writing is torturous.

  3. Vain and selfish? Yep, that’s me. But lazy, I’m not sure what that word “lazy” means. I am busy and working all the time.

    This read to me like how I feel about writing most of the time. Almost everything is not good enough. In fact almost all fiction writing I have read is not good enough, to me.

    Writing clearly is by far the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. I’ve written four symphonies and dozens of other pieces of music. I’ve painted and drawn, I’ve run companies and writing a good coherent story is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.

    I agree with George; most writing I do and read is “humbug generally.”

  4. James – why we do the things we do is an ongoing question. I suspect there is no single answer.

    Stacey – I agree. Generalisations are always bad. 🙂

    Rob – You’re as bitter as George.

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