01 November 2009

If You Want to Write:
A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit

by Brenda Ueland

This book first appeared in 1938 when its author was 44 years old. She grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., but lived in Greenwich Village, New York City for a while and rubbed elbows with the likes of Eugene O'Neill. She eventually returned to Minnesota, where she earned a living as a writer, editor and teacher of writing. In her later years, she set an international swimming record for people over-80 and was knighted by the King of Norway. She lived to be 93.

That said, you've likely never heard of Brenda Ueland. I hadn't either until I found a reference to this book in somebody else's book on writing. I liked the excerpt quoted, and I ordered the book. I listed all those quirky tidbits about the author because the book is a bit of a quirk itself. But please understand, I mean that in the most lovely way.

This is a charming, breathless, exuberant book about living in a bigger way as the path to finding the writing life you feel you were always meant to have. The chapter titles alone inspire me: (1) Everybody is talented, original and has something to say; (7) Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write; and finally, (10) Why Women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing. What's in between the titles is even better!

I initially read this book when I was experiencing a long period of block in my life. Part of dismantling that block involved developing a better understanding of how creativity really works. It isn't "bidden" or "commanded forth" when we are ready to use it, like one knight's sword pulled and pointed at another. Coming from a business and journalism background, that was hard for me to understand. I'd always driven myself, written about things that interested me only mildly or not at all and managed to make them interesting for other people.

But it wore me out after 25 years. Ueland helped. She didn't think much of the ways of business either, and she made me feel much better about my pulling into myself:
So you see the imagination needs moodling--long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: "I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget." But they have no slow, big ideas....If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. Wait for them. Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are. But do not feel, any more, guilty about idleness and solitude. (pp. 32-33)
Mostly, Ueland says, we need to learn to trust ourselves and not judge ourselves, at least not too soon--both principles that fit well with the Amherst Writes & Artists philosophy I teach in my workshops. She suggests we "prime" our imagination each day like a pump, using a splash of solitude and idleness to keep the waters flowing. I couldn't agree more.

With that said, I'll leave off writing. I've got some moodling to attend to. When you get yours in, then and only then, read her book. Finish it only if you absolutely can't put it down. I'm guessing that's the way she'd want it.

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