If You Want To Write (notes on Ueland’s book)

Brenda Ueland (1891-1985) was a journalist, editor, freelance writer and teacher of writing. She seems to have been a highly creative, generous-hearted, free spirit. Amongst her accomplishments, she was knighted by the King of Norway, and set an international swimming record for people over 80 years old. Ueland wrote a book in 1938 that was ‘re-discovered’ in the 1980s, and has since done the rounds of the self help movement, and creative writing courses. In If you want to write: a book about art, independence and spirit (B N Publishing, 1938/2008) she wrote, “Everyone … has something important to say.” Carl Sandburg wrote that it is “the best book ever written on how to write.” It is, undoubtedly, inspiring, but there are also major flaws in it, so read these notes with a critical eye …

In 2007, Alice Kaplan wrote a fascinating article about Ueland entitled ‘Lady of the Lake: Writer Brenda Ueland and the story she never shared’. Kaplan wrote that “[Ueland’s] effortlessly lovely sentences [writing about her native Minneapolis] give you the impression that she wrote as she breathed.” At the same time, Kaplan pointed out that at the heart of Ueland’s book was a contradiction: “Her advice was simple: don’t listen to the critics, don’t listen to the teachers, don’t try to be literary. … and then she proceeds to teach.”

Kaplan also issues a warning: “For all its energy and gumption, [‘If You Want To Write’] is wilfully naïve about literature and the literary enterprise. Ueland is so enthusiastic about feelings and originality in writing that she ignores, or denies, the part of writing that is based on imitation, that derives its strength from literary tradition – the part of writing that involves copying models from the past or imitating what you admire. … The reality of writing is much more complicated since, good or bad, it can come from the heart of from the most guileful imitations of age-old conventions.” And perhaps one of the greatest ironies (and unsolved mysteries about her character) is that Ueland has gone down in history in Alexander Lindey’s book ‘Plagiarism and Originality’ (1952) for a very public and shocking example of plagiarising several paragraphs of someone else’s short story in 1949. But don’t let that strange piece of information about her put you off.

My suggestion is: read ‘If You Want To Write’ to inspire you to create, and make you think about your writing. Don’t take it as a definitive or comprehensive account on how to go about it. But give special consideration to Ueland’s 12 point manifesto in Chapter 18 (quoted here in almost its entirety) – and re-read it often.

My notes that follow in this article are a mixture of quotations from the book, paraphrases of some of Ueland’s ideas, and (in the square brackets) some responses and musings of my own.

Notes, quotes and responses to Ueland’s ‘If You Want To Write’

Chap 1

  • 9 “everybody is … original and has something important to say” [Ueland also says “everybody is talented”. I do not agree. Everybody has the potential to develop talents. Talent is not inherent or in-born, but skill and knowledge acquired through learning. For more on talent, read Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Talent Code.]
  • 10 “Everybody is original if he tells the truth and if he speaks from himself.”
  • 11 work for “nothing but fun, for that glorious inner excitement”
  • 13 “when you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free and not anxious”
  • 14 “here is an important thing: you must practice not perfunctorily, but with all your intelligence and love, as Kreisler does. A great musician once told me that one should never play a single note without hearing it, feeling that it is true, thinking it beautiful.”
  • 14 “Work freely and rollickingly as though talking to a friend who loves you.”

Chap 2

  • 16 “the more you use this joyful creative power … the more you have”
  • 19 “there is a great intrinsic reward to writing. Unless you feel that, you will soon give it up.”

Chap 3

  • 25 “One great inhibition and obstacle [is]: Will it make money? But if you are thinking of this all the time, either you don’t make money because the work is so empty, dry, calculated, and without life in it, or you do make money, and you are ashamed of your work.”
  • [… but it is creatively useful to consider how an audience might relate to what we are creating. Part of the work we do is about communicating. And to communicate, we have to take into account of the frame of reference that our listener/reader comes with.]
  • 26 “at last I understood that writing was this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it.”
  • [Do the work for yourself.]

Chap 4

  • 29 “Imagination works slowly and quietly.”
  • [Allow yourself to drift and daydream; that is integral to creativity. Allow yourself to ‘doodle’ and ‘scribble’ until an idea for a picture emerges.]
  • 35 Distinguish between ‘creation’ and ‘mental evacuation’.

Chap 5

  • 41 “feel carefree so that you will get some new ideas on how to deal with your anxieties”
  • 43 “living in the present and not in the destination”
  • 46 Don’t ‘over-polish’ – do the next thing, and the insight will come for what the previous thing needs.

Chap 6

  • 53 “Only when you are playing in a thing do people listen and hear you and are moved by your playing. It is because you are moved, because … the music … suddenly is your voice and your eloquence. The passionate and wonderful questions in the music are your questions.”
  • 53 “She always practises and never plays.”
  • 55 Commit idle thoughts to paper.

Chap 7

  • 59 “Let yourself go! Be careless, reckless! Be a lion! Be a pirate! Write any old way.”
  • 60 Allow yourself to create poor quality material.
  • 61 Put down what you see and hear, exactly as it is for you.
  • 61 Record your authentic feeling.

Chap 8

  • 64 “In order for writing to be alive and interesting it must be personal; it must come from the ‘I’: what I know and feel. For that is the only great and interesting thing.”

Chap 9

  • 78 “Self-confidence never rests, but is always working and striving, and it is always modest and grateful and open to what is new and better. (And so it is really humble all the time before what is greater than itself.”

Chap 10

  • 89 “If you are always doing for others and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good. … In order to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate, or advise …, you have to be something yourself. And how do you become something yourself? Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.”
  • 90 “The best way to teach is to be fine and shining examples.”

Chap 11

  • 92 For better flow in your writing, “think of telling a story, not of writing it”
  • 92 Be specific, not general. “… a ‘type’ is never convincing and never comes to life”
  • 93 “The more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthful you must describe a Particular.”
  • 96 Don’t try to repeat yourself, or to repeat a formula / recipe: “do not forget that your true inner self is ever-changing, ever-creating new things from itself. But if you write one good and successful thing and then try to make all the others just as good, ie. just like it, then the … fountain of talent will be dried up.”
  • 98 Don’t censor where you look inside yourself. “Great men feel and know everything that mean men feel, even more clearly, but they seem to have made some kind of ascension, and these evil feelings, though they still understand them sympathetically, no longer exert any power over them.”
  • 99 “you must freely and recklessly make new mistakes”

Chap 12

  • 101 When writing the first draft “disentangle all ‘oughts’. You must discard all shackles, weights, obligations and all duties. You can write as badly as you want to.”
  • 101 “Don’t think that writing is not work. Your novel make take 11 years as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ did – rewriting it, seeing the people more clearly in your imagination, polishing it, making it true and more economical of words, working out the bogus and the affected.”
  • 105 Don’t copy others. [But remember that we can learn a great deal by imitating great work by others, as we constantly work to find our own voice.] “there is no sense in writing anything I don’t feel, or working up a lot of bogus feelings because nobody will be one bit impressed or affected.”

Chap 13

  • 108 “in fiction, Chekhov said, you can pose a question (about poverty, morality, or whatever it is), but you must not answer it.”
  • 109 Don’t illustrate a ‘message’; just honestly write your characters
  • 109 Writing in detail about evil or misery can be transcendent (and interesting) if the writer does so with concern.
  • 113 “the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person”

Chap 14

  • 118 Don’t ‘lie’ in what you write; don’t be inauthentic.

Chap 15

  • 138 Talent grows when we keep creating and practising.
  • 138 Follow the creative urge wherever it takes you, and whenever it arises.

Chap 16

  • 142 “Feel as you do when you are telling children a great big lie, making it up as you go along – pulling their legs with a whopper.” [i.e. be larger than life, give it a dramatic sweep, allow yourself to be outrageous.]
  • 143 Create as though you want to share something that matters to you. “art is generosity, ie you tell somebody something not to show off but because you want to share it with them.”
  • 143 Keep your real or imagined audience hooked, always, right to the end.
  • 144 Much greater art is created when keeping an audience in mind [the work is generous and dialogic]
  • 145 Don’t just please yourself [that’s a private diary, not something for an audience]
  • 145 Imagine possible audiences for what you are creating

Chap 17

  • 146 Don’t plan; just write. Pre-ordained structures can kill creative flow.
  • 147 Write first, plan later.
  • 150 Creativity comes from love, respect, gratitude, praise, tenderness, enthusiasm [also curiosity, open mindedness, discipline …]
  • 150 Even ‘mediocre’ represents creative effort.

Chap 18

  • [Go beyond entertainment. Include it, but also talk to people in your writing. Engage them.]
  • 154-55 “To sum up – if you want to write:
  1. Know that you have talent, are original and have something to say.
  2. Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.
  3. Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.
  4. Tackle anything you want to … anything. …
  5. Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories. To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.
  6. Don’t fret or be ashamed of what you have written in the past. … We are too ready … not to stand by what we have said or done. Often it is a way of forestalling criticism, saying hurriedly: ‘I know it is awful!’ before anyone else does. … Of course they are mistakes. Go on to the next.
  7. Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.
  8. Don’t think of yourself as an intestinal tract and tangle of nerves in the skull that will not work unless you drink coffee. Think of yourself as incandescent power, illuminated perhaps and forever talked to by God and his messengers ….
  9. If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it. Again, I say, the only unfortunate people are the glib ones, immediately satisfied with their own work. To them the ocean is only knee-deep.
  10. When discouraged, remember what van Gogh said: “If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”
  11. Don’t be afraid of yourself when you write. Don’t check-rein yourself in. If you are afraid of being sentimental, say, for heaven’s sake, be as sentimental as you can or feel like being! Then you will probably pass through to the other side and slough off sentimentality because you understand it at last and really don’t care about it.
  12. Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse then other writers. ‘I will not Reason & Compare’ said [William] Blake; ‘my business is to Create.’…”

1 Comment on “If You Want To Write (notes on Ueland’s book)

  1. I appreciate how you have personalised this book, shown us what impressed you. This makes me want to read and possibly purchase the book. (I am a new writer). Thanks again. – deborah maile-

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