“It is (the writer’s) 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. –George Orwell
We’ve all read authors that write from what Orwell calls the “immature stage”. They get locked in a stage of life they will not, or cannot, escape. They hate their parents, they cannot get over the fact that someone of the opposite sex has dumped them in an unceremonious manner, or they cannot get past the fact that their political party cannot win, and those mentalities are reflected in their writing. If, on the other hand, as Orwell states, a writer is afforded the ability to completely forget the transgressions and tragedies that made him miserable in his youth –that which may otherwise diminish his mental health– he may not be writer he could’ve been if he had learned how to embrace those demons. A quality writer, if Orwell’s fascinating thesis is to be believed, is one of those rare individuals that is cursed, and blessed, with the inability to forget, while capably moving to the next stage of maturity, coupled with the ability to recall all of those sentiments and mentalities they struggled with in their effort to achieve more mature stages.
We’ve all heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that lists the various needs a person must satisfy to achieve a sense of completion. The initial stages of the hierarchy concerns basic needs (food, water, and breathing) that we take for granted, until they are not met. As this hierarchy progresses to completion, the needs become more complex, and the need to satisfy them more profound. There is also an idea that person that may take one level for granted –such as the need for friendship, and the need to be loved– and they may regress back a level. The basic structure of the Hierarchy of Needs suggests, however, that one cannot progress to next level, until the needs of the prior level are satisfied. Every person is different, of course, but the basic tenets are such that most people are not immune to the needs of a level you are currently on, and your stubborn refusal to accept the idea that you need more of whatever you currently have, has you stuck at that level.
Orwell’s addendum to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pertains to writers. His quote basically states that while writers are not immune to the need to progress in all the ways Maslow outlined, and that their progress is elemental to better writing, it’s just as vital to the quality of the writing that they be able to tap into the angst that drove them to want to be a writer while mired in a previous stage.
The best, most stark example, may be the starving artist that wrote something while mired in a premature stage. The piece they wrote may have been beautiful on one level, but it was generally regarded as being on the cusp of brilliance. The beauty of their piece may have been contained its raw exploration of their vulnerabilities, but it was also considered a snapshot of what this artist might be capable of ultimately, as it offered no solutions. Their piece was more of a list of complaints with no end in sight, a characteristic that can be compelling in its own right.
As we’ve witnessed, in all crafts, some starving artists never reach their full potential. Some of them become trapped in the starving artist mindset, or elementary stage of need, and they never gain a complete enough understanding of themselves, and thus mankind, to achieve a greater, or more complete artistic piece. Or, they may have progressed through the channels of their needs so completely that they’ve lost their need to create artistic pieces. It’s also been the case that a starving artist’s original piece was so successful that the person became successful and lost the starving artist mindset that gave them fame, and every piece they write thereafter is retread. This lack of artistic progression may be as simple as the artist never progressing to the self-actualized stage.
The website Simple Psychology states that “Maslow estimated that only two percent of people will reach the state of self-actualization.”
Is Maslow wrong, or are we? Are we a member of the ninety-eight percent, and does this affect our writing in such a manner that we don’t have the objectivity necessary to write a compelling fictional character, much less conduct our lives in a self-actualized manner?
As one that has progressed through a stage fairly recently, I can tell you that that progression served my writing well. I would not say that I’m a member of the two percent, but I have progressed, and I didn’t wake one day with the realization that I had progressed either. It was only upon reflection that I realized that only after one of my fundamental needs was met did my writing progress. I look back on my “immature stage” and I realized how much better my writing has become. I realized that my inability to complete a piece was more of a commentary on my inability to progress through my personal hierarchy of needs than it was my artistic abilities. I’ve also managed to keep in touch with all of the angst that drove some of my earlier works to bring them to completion in a manner I may not have if I hadn’t progressed.