Wednesday, June 25, 2014

George Orwell on Writing

Find Your True Nature

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, who chose it to protect his family from his social and political writing. He is most famous for the last two novels he wrote, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As a child he knew he wanted to be a writer but he got sidetracked with several jobs early in life.
I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
Why I Write
That's a view all writers need to embrace—anyone creative for that matter. Once you know what your true nature is you won't be happy if you don't pursue it. Of course pursuing it is no guarantee of happiness, but not pursuing it is a sure road to misery.

Why Do You Write?

Most of his advice for writers comes from two essays, Why I Write and Politics and the English Language. Don't let that last one fool you. Regardless of what type of writing you do you will be a much better writer by following its advice.

Orwell spent many years writing expository journalism and reviews of books and plays, but we know him best because of his strong political writing. His socialist views were partly formed from his time spent pretending to be a tramp in the working class sections of various European cities leading up to World War II.
When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
Why I Write
He explained how these experiences shaped him as a writer:
I give all this background information because 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.
Why I Write
He outlines the different motives all writers share:

Four Great Motives for Writing
These four motives are active in every writer, in different proportions, and vary at different times throughout life. It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.
  1. Sheer Egoism
  2. Aesthetic Enthusiasm
  3. Historical Impulse
  4. Political Purpose

In Why I Write he defines each of these motives; follow the link for his in-depth explanation.
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.
Why I Write

Don't Hold Back

You have to say what needs to be said, and say it in your unique voice. Know that the events of your time shape you as a writer. If you feel outraged by events happening around you, let your readers know.
In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.
Why I Write
You know how your mind begins to fog over when you're reading some business or political fluffery? In his essay, Politics and the English Language, he gives examples of this vague, wandering style of writing and shows how to sharpen it and make it more readable. (I may have some of these exerpts out of order, but this flows nicely to get the gist.)

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly... 
This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose... 
The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. 
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. 
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.

I was especially glad to read this:
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable."
Fascism has always been a slippery word for me; I have never been able to hold a definition of it in my mind long enough for any given sentence to have meaning. "Democracy" is another word that has multiple ambiguous definitions. I struggled with Whitman's Leaves of Grass because I could never get my head around what he meant by "democratic art."

Even though he calls the following "rules for political writing," I can see how most of my own writing would be better by doing this:

Six Rules for Political Writing
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Write what you want to write, what you need to write, not what you think you should or what you think your friends or family or church want you to write. Be bold. Be daring. Take risks.
To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer.
Writers and Leviathan

Don't Give Up

I know you've heard that said at least a couple times in your life.

George Orwell didn't write his two most famous novels until the end of his life.
Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.
Why I Write
After writing Animal Farm and before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, he wrote:
I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.
Why I Write
I like to keep this final quote in mind when I think of him writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, only a few years before he died, suffering severely from tuberculosis:
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.
Why I Write

And here is an inspirational poster with that last quote on it.