George Orwell and Joan Didion: “Why I Write”

The deadline for my MFA thesis collection of poetry is March 1st.  A minimum recommended collection should include fifty to sixty pages.  So that I wouldn’t be surprised when the deadline came near, I started cranking out two poems a week during my first semester almost eighteen months ago.  Most of them were not good, but with much editing a few turned into pleasant surprises.  I now have seventy pages of poems for my thesis.

Writing the poems wasn’t the difficult part.

My struggle is compiling the thesis methodology which is a prose intro to the collection.  I’ve settled on several sections that include a discussion on Wallace Stevens, James Wright, and metaphor.  Leading the way in this scholarly discussion is a recap of my cultural and ancestral heritage.  I’m trying to determine why I write about what I write about.  I think it’s easier to write about someone I don’t know, like Wallace Stevens, rather than about myself.  Yet, the process has been rewarding.  A couple of essays provide a model for my endeavors with the thesis methodology.

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay titled “Why I Write.”  Joan Didion responded in 1976 with an essay by the same name.  Both essays offer guidance for any writer to discover what it is that pushes them to write.  Using the essays as a platform, I developed a questionnaire that might help you discover your own motivations:

  • As a child, what were your first literary endeavors, both reading and writing?
  • What things do you think about the most:  politics, love, nature, science, etc.?
  • Do you consider yourself an intellectual or an artist?  Or both?
  • Are you fascinated by grammar?  What fascinates you about grammar?
  • Do you keep a notebook of your ideas and images?
  • Do you consider yourself a director or an actor?
  • Are you steadfast in your outlook or do you look for multiple truths?
  • Do you consider yourself a stand-up comedian or a college professor?
  • Do you collect words, dialogue, and phrases for later use?
  • If you are a novelist, do you read poetry?
  • If you are a poet, do you read novels?
  • Do you prefer tragedy, comedy, or history plays
  • What is your favorite painting?
  • What is it you want to tell the world?


Your answers will most likely shift and change over time.  An important secondary question to most of these questions is “Why?”  That’s where the work begins.  Why do I prefer tragedy?  Why do I prefer cubism over realism?  Why do I need to be in control?  Often, when we step outside our comfortable little box in which we hide ourselves, we are bombarded with new ideas and images.

Finding out who you are is an important part of finding out who you want to be.

Joan Didion’s essay can be found here, and George Orwell’s essay can be found here.

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