The Four Things I Keep Coming Back To | Part One: Sheer Egoism

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I am stuck with writing as a way of life, in much the same way I am stuck with running as a way of life. I have to do it pretty routinely to feel fully alive, even though it doesn’t come easily to me and I’m not very good at it.

My natural place in the field of writers, as with runners, is somewhere toward the back of the pack. Every time I write one of these posts, I learn my limitations anew: I sweat out a first draft that I feel okay about. I start knocking the rough edges off it and almost invariably end up changing its direction–without intending to–shifting tone, getting lost in asides and so forth. But usually I’ve put enough work into the second draft that I just accept its shortcomings. I polish it once, twice, three times, hit the publish button, and then I still read things back to myself that sound embarrassingly bad. I even manage to choose quotations from great writers that were trenchant and arresting in their original settings but seem off target in the places I try to use them.

And I ask myself: Since the human mind is more or less a representation machine, shouldn’t the act of writing down sentences that describe the world or express our thoughts come naturally to us? Why is it so hard?

Humans are, to my knowledge, the only species capable of being ridiculous, and this because we are uniquely capable of getting representations of simple, basic things so wrong. If cats could write, one gets the impression they would not produce ugly, awkward, or jarringly stupid sentences about the cat world–how or why would they? They would just, without bother, represent cat-facts as they are, right? Why, poor human that I am, with all my talent for error and solecism, do I insist on multiplying my opportunities for humiliation by trying to write things down? Wouldn’t it be better to take the advice of Wittgenstein and simply pass over in silence the things that resist our ability to express them? And isn’t that set of things pretty much all of life?

But I can’t drop it, this compulsion to write. There is a broad motive that underlies the whole attitude of a writer that I find is best expressed in the life of James Baldwin, and I may, in the coming weeks write about it, but today I want to focus on a subject that I keep coming back to year after year–the four specific reasons Orwell gave for writing in his 1946 essay “Why I Write.” They are all deceptively simple. And for anyone like me, who feels that writing is an organic part of living, they are much more than answers to the question, Why do I write? They are answers to the question, Why do I try to live they way I do?

When Orwell was asked why he wrote, in 1946, he had published scores of book reviews, dozens of essays, his own regular op-ed column in a national newspaper, and eight books, but he was still poor. Animal Farm, the book that would finally make him an international literary star, had come out in late 1945, but it would be several years before it would earn him much money. (In fact, as with 1984, almost all the royalties would come after his death.) Orwell cared so little about the proceeds that while he was still struggling to find a publisher for Animal Farm, one of the things he did was to make sure a Ukrainian translation was issued, for free. Some Ukrainian dissidents, after reading their free copies, would tell Orwell that his grasp of Soviet repression and intellectual corruption was literally incredible: they could not believe Orwell had not lived in the USSR himself.

Hearing this kind of thing was, it turns out, the first reason Orwell wrote. He didn’t care about the money; he wanted to be heard. Known. Admired. All writers do. This is how he put it:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood, etc etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.

The key is in that last sentence. It is humbug–the Victorian word for bullshit–to pretend you are not in the writing game for the ego strokes. This crucial piece of self-knowledge is something every writer must attain if s/he is to move on to serious writing, Orwell believes. All writers are “vain and self-centered,” he writes in the same passage, and they’re better off admitting it. It clears the accounts and puts the writer in an honest frame of mind.

This is one of the things I keep coming back to. Orwell’s admission of egoism is a secular version of the religious consciousness that all humans have sinned and fallen short of the Kingdom of Heaven. Orwell seems to be saying (to me, at any rate) that even writers, who set themselves up in a kind of omniscient position, interrogating politics, art, society, history, and so forth and passing exalted judgments on them, remain ego-driven children at their foundations.

I think it was in this same vain that the novelist Orhan Pamuk described with disarming frankness in 2006 why it was so great to win the Nobel Prize. The Nobel is at the top rank of human achievement. Only our most vaunted, learned thinkers earn it. They are imbued, we believe, with cold, Olympian virtues of aloofness and detachment–virtually a race apart from us. But Pamuk punctures this myth delightfully (and delightedly), saying in his Nobel Banquet speech that he once again felt like a teacher-pleasing child:

Actually the question I’ve heard most often since the news of this prize reached me is: How does it feel to get the Nobel Prize? I say, oh! It feels good. All the grown ups are constantly smiling at me. Suddenly everybody is again gentle, polite and tender. In fact, I almost feel like a prince. I feel like a child. . . . In fact now … come to think of it … That is why I write and why I will continue to write.

You can’t get much more egoistic than a prince, right? Everyone around you thinks you are young, smart, handsome, fit to rule the realm. Orwell was right about this state of the writer’s mind, and he was right to put egoism first in his list. Whatever writers tell you their purpose is, you can be sure their primary motive is to be heard, acknowledged, and valued.

And since writing is a way of life for me, I take Orwell’s words as a caution: In everything I do, even if it seems selfless or noble, there must be a part of me that is putting me first, calling out for praise and recognition. I have come to believe that some people think the point of growing up is to deny the existence of, overcome, or possibly even eliminate, this childish, selfish part of oneself. But this is humbug. The child never goes away, and we should not pretend that it virtue demands we negate it.