Brenda Ueland – “If You Want to Write”

Maybe it’s just the timing, but I really, really liked this book. Brenda Ueland’s advice on work, art, independence, talent, inspiration, confidence and the creative process is so practical for me as I try to figure out what it means to be a journalist and a writer, and how to just sit down at the desk do it all. But I think that no matter what your line of work is (even if you don’t, as the title suggests, want to write) you’d probably like this book. There’s good, friendly encouragement and insight into how to calm down, live in the present, don’t avoid the work, and just enjoy it all because it’s what you were made to do.

She lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota (which, if you didn’t know it is pretty much the best city in the whole world), so I can imagine her entertaining at a house with stone steps on Grand, and talking with art friends in a smoky uptown cafe. I can tell from the book that she admired William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh and reading her writing – rambling, frank, dotted with footnotes and full of lots of old syntax and words like “splendid” (because it was the 1930s, after all) – is like having a conversation over afternoon tea in black and white with someone from “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

She paints pictures of things that I struggle with, like work and what to do when you actually carve the time out and sit down at your desk, and hope the words will come. And she explains it all so patiently and clearly that it’s not intimidating anymore, gently reminding us that, “[This] is the way you are to feel when you are writing – happy, truthful and free, with that wonderful contented absorption of a child stringing beads in kindergarten. With complete self-trust…I tell you this because I want to show you that the creative impulse is quiet, quiet. It sees, it feels, it quietly hears; and now, in the present.”*

And when I think about work like that, it’s not so scary anymore. It helps me remember that I really do have the capability to contribute and do something valuable and unique if I’ll just settle down and focus for a minute.

Focus and presence without any fear is really the key, I think, to any kind of real communication or creative work – whether its making dinner, preparing a lesson plan, writing an article or just having a sincere/enjoyable conversation (as illustrated in the following story):

“Once driving around the lake by our house we stopped and looked at the sunset, a December sky. He spoke of ‘the gunmetal sky’ and looked for a long time. I felt some awe: ‘This is really the way a poet feels when he is moved.’ For I could feel what was going on in him while he looked at the sky, – some kind of an experience, incandescent and in motion. But I was living ten minutes hence in the future, feeling  a little self-conscious and anxious to please and full of small compunctions, though I exclaimed: ‘Isn’t it perfectly wonderful!’ Well, Carl Sandburg was living in the present and having a poetic experience. But I was too full of other celebrations, concern about being a polite hostess and getting home on time to dinner…Incidentally, when you say perfunctorily about the sky just to talk: ‘What a beautiful evening!’ that is not poetry. But if you say it and mean it very much, it is.”

She had a few other very practical words of advice, like:

  • Keep a diary
  • Take walks
  • Don’t hurry, because “...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.
  • In writing, “ not try to think of better words, more gripping words. Try to see the people better…the characters must come fully to life in your imagination” (which, if you think about it, is good advice for any sort of creative work – fiction writing, journalism, giving a speech/presentation, or just having a conversation)
  • and finally, “…the only way to write well, so that people believe what we say and are interested or touched by it, is to slough off all pretentiousness and attitudinizing.” (so true! and not just for writers!)

But I think my favorite part, and the most helpful bit, were the words on having confidence. Because I waste a lot of time worrying if my ideas are good, and second-guessing myself, and making apologies to my boss or coworkers before they even have a chance to check my work –

“We are too ready (women especially) 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. Very bad and cowardly. It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of one’s mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. Go on to the next.

True, no? Like I said, good words no matter what your line of work may be. From journalism to laundry to writing, film editing, making soup or vacuuming – it helps to be present with quiet and confidence (which really comes with humility and faith, if you think about it).

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