Warren Adler: On Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’
By Warren Adler
People often ask, and I ask myself on a daily basis, why I have spent more than six decades writing novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays and occasional reportage, continuing to ply this obsession into the cusp of my dotage.
My answer to others and especially to myself never seems quite adequate. Whether I take the high road proclaiming the need to find artistic and aesthetic truth in the human condition or the low road of pure egoism, I sound like either a pompous ass or a mere poseur.
I can take refuge in proclaiming it’s an addiction, some genetic craving or perhaps the necessity to unburden myself of a brain overstuffed with stories. Maybe it’s the fear of some yet undiscovered affliction of the mind or maybe I can review events in an unloved childhood citing loneliness, abuse, cruel parenting, hunger or poverty that forced me out of despair and into some inner fantasy life. None of which would necessarily be true.
As a child of the depression I will admit a profound shortage of money and a mostly unemployed dad, but I thrived in the bosom of an extended family, never feeling poor, unloved or abused. I had a perfectly wonderful, joyous upbringing.
I’ve searched through the comments, both written and oral, of other writers for an adequate explanation that might suit my situation without quite sounding my particular gong and I give George Orwell a rousing high five, since his long ago written essay entitled ‘Why I Write’ is as close to my answer as it gets. I did read this Orwell essay years ago with interest but not with the passionate truth and excitement of discovering a kindred motive. I think it needed the perspective and leavening of age to understand what he meant and how close it gets to the answer to the question posed by this essay.
Orwell cites four reasons for why he picked up his pen for a lifetime of writing. Although he did cite the loneliness of his childhood and some of the reasons I have personally rejected, his very first reason is ‘sheer egoism. Desire to be clever, the desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death…it is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive but a strong one. Writers share these characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen and the whole top crust of humanity.’ It does sound like snobbery and it is, but remember, he lived before the age of political correctness.
I concur enthusiastically with this premise. He made the point, too, that the motivation behind such characteristics has little or nothing to do with money.
His second reason is ‘Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand in words and their right arrangement, Pleasure in the impact of one sound upon another in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story and desire to share an experience which one think is valuable and should not be missed.’
His third reason is ‘Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are to find true facts and store them up for posterity.’
His fourth reason is far more complex and suggests many meanings. He called it ‘political purpose—using the word political in the widest possible sense to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.’
Since he confessed that his most sacred purpose was to fight injustice, on the surface this thought of his might be interpreted merely to define writing as propaganda. I see that explanation more as an appeal for understanding and a search for truth and life’s meaning.
Further, a serious writer yearns to create stories that plumb the soul of the human condition, ever searching, ever exploring, through character and plots to create a kind of mirror image of people trying to make sense out of their existence in the brief time they appear on the stage of life. I believe, too, that it is a personal journey, a kind of artistic self-autopsy where the writer wrestles through story telling to discover for himself the why and how of his own life’s purpose.
What Orwell is saying, as I understand it, is that serious writing is a sacred calling with deep purpose, using the power of mind and the mysterious gifts of artistry and talent to unravel the eternal puzzle of ‘what happens next’ which is at the heart of the human conundrum. It does sound a bit lofty, but then as any writer worth their salt knows … it is.
Of course, Orwell embellished his thesis with additional chapter and verse, but on the whole, I think he has it right and the older I get, the more I agree with him. It may not exactly answer the question, especially the one posed to oneself. But coming back to his reasons after many, many years from having first read it, my high five to him is far beyond an empty gesture.
Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito. Adler has optioned and sold film rights to more than a dozen of his novels and short stories to Hollywood and major television networks. Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kirsten Scott Thomas), The Sunset Gang (starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould, and Doris Roberts), Private Lies, Funny Boys, Madeline’s Miracles, Trans-Siberian Express, and his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series are only a few titles that have forever left Adler’s mark on contemporary American authorship from page to stage to screen. Red Herring, his newest Fiona Fitzgerald mystery book, has just been released.
Image: Picture of George Orwell which appears in an old acreditation for the BNUJ, 1933; Wikimedia Commons; public domain.