Friday, March 7, 2008

Ueland's If You Want to Write

At some point, I will have been writing in this blog for long enough that I will forget about a post I wrote, be too lazy to check the archives, and go ahead and publish a post with a twinge of a feeling that I’ve written about this before. It's bound to happen--have I written about my favorite writing book yet? The hazelnut coffee is brewing.

If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit by Brenda Ueland. This is one of the books on my bookshelf since middle school, but I was too young to appreciate. Written in 1938, it is a poetic, short, inspiring work that moves you to pour your creative energy into what you love to do or make, whether it is writing, art, cooking, or building. It’s the kind of book that is so deep that you need to come back to it a few times.

Her main premise, which I believe about everyone else but sometimes forget about myself, is that everyone can write and everyone has something original to say. Once you tap into your core, your true self, thoughts and raw feelings, what you write is beautiful, freeing, and original. Ueland remarks early in the book that the two most vital writing principles are: only write when you want to and only write what is absolutely true. By sticking to these, she says, we can crawl out of a shell of artificiality and stunted expression and write originally.

The book is punctuated with chapter headings such as, “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write,” “Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing,” and “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.” I truly hope some of my friends and family who might read this will be encouraged to write freely.

Some favorite passages from If You Want to Write:

“There is that American pastime known as “kidding,”—with the result that everyone is ashamed and hang-dog about showing the slightest enthusiasm or passion or sincere feeling about anything.”

“Yes, I hate orthodox criticism. I don’t mean great criticism, like that of Mathew Arnold and others, but the usual small niggling, fussy-mussy criticism, which thinks it can improve people by telling them where they are wrong, and results only in putting them in strait-jackets of hesitancy and self-consciousness, and weazening all vision and bravery.

I hate it not so much on my own account, for I have learned at last not to let it balk me. But I hate it because of the potentially shining, gentle, gifted people of all ages that it snuffs out every year. It is a murderer of talent. And because the most modest and sensitive people are the most talented, having the most imagination and sympathy, these are the very first ones to get killed off. It is the brutal egotists that survive.”

“…All people who try to write (and all people long to, which is natural and right) become anxious, timid, contracted, become perfectionists, so terribly afraid that they may put something down that is not as good as Shakespeare.

And so no wonder you don’t write and put it off month after month, decade after decade. For when you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free,--free and not anxious. The only good teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny…”

“When a child is taken somewhere by his parents he is not thinking nervously: are they late or early? Is the furnace running at home? He is at rest and looks out the window and sees and thinks. He lives in the present. That is why children enjoy looking and listening so much. Why they are such wonderful mimics of grown-ups. They have tremendous concentration because they have no other concern than to be interested in things. Later they are trained to force concentration and become as imaginatively muddy and uneasy as the rest of us.”

“And so now I have established reasons why you should work from now on until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence, at your writing or whatever work it is that you care about. If you do that, out of the mountains that you write some mole hills will be published. Or you may make a fortune and win the Nobel Prize. But if nothing is ever published at all and you never make a cent, just the same it will be good that you have worked.”

“This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas. Willing is doing something you know already, something you have been told by somebody else; there is no new imaginative understanding in it. And presently your soul gets frightfully sterile and dry because you are so quick, snappy and efficient about doing one thing after another that you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine.”