In honor of his birthday (June 25), Brainpickings related George Orwell’s top four motivations for writing: egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. I have often thought that pinning down why I write might give me insight into how I could proceed with new creative work, so I was quick to connect Orwell's motivations with my own. In my twenties I was big on getting things right, creating vivid moments of some sort of true experience, kind of like Orwell's historical impulse. More recently, the sound and impact of words—pure aesthetics—have come to the forefront.
What intrigues me now is Orwell’s attention to early development and inescapable "emotional attitude." This is from his essay "Why I Write":
I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
For me, this relates to Ben Marcus’ theory that each writer has one essential story to tell — a story that must be repeated in different ways and can never be resolved. The thought that the compulsion to write can be understood as some kind of unresolvable psychological tic ... tickles me. There is something wrong with writers, and we've made it our business to publicly pick at our scabs.
It’s interesting to compare Orwell’s insistence on early influences with Joan Didion, who has a "Why I Write" of her own. Didion says, “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
With Didion, I find the answer to the question of how to proceed. While I very much enjoy thinking about early influences and uncontrollable compulsions—and I love Orwell for saying "Good prose is like a windowpane"—I really don’t have a hold on why I write until after I am writing. The compulsion to write in itself is only really examined, for me, in the process of writing. I don't have any real ideas about what my scabs might look like until the writing itself shows me. It may be my poor memory, but I need the physical presence of words to spark any kind of recognition of that which is real.
In any case, thinking about writing never quite gets any work done. The only thing is to keep writing.