Brenda Ueland was a journalist, editor, freelance writer, and teacher of writing. In If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit she shares her philosophies on writing and life in general. Ueland firmly believed that anyone can write, that everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. In this book she explains how find that spark that will make you a great writer. Carl Sandburg called this book the best book ever written about how to write. Join the millions of others who've found inspiration and unlocked their own talent.
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About the Author
BRENDA UELAND (1891–1985) spent many years living in New York, where she was part of the Greenwich Village bohemian crowd. She received an international swimming record for over-eighty-year-olds and was knighted by the King of Norway.
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If You Want to Write
By Brenda Ueland
Graywolf PressCopyright © 1987 Estate of Brenda Ueland
All rights reserved.
Everybody Is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say
* * *
I HAVE BEEN WRITING A LONG TIME AND HAVE LEARNED some things, not only from my own long hard work, but from a writing class I had for three years. In this class were all kinds of people: prosperous and poor, stenographers, housewives, salesmen, cultivated people and little servant girls who had never been to high school, timid people and bold ones, slow and quick ones.
This is what I learned: everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.
And it may comfort you to know that the only people you might suspect of not having talent are those who write very easily and glibly, and without inhibition or pain, skipping gaily through a novel in a week or so. These are the only ones who did not seem to improve much, to go forward. You cannot get much out of them. They give up working presently and drop out. But these, too, were talented underneath. I am sure of that. It is just that they did not break through the shell of easy glibness to what is true and alive underneath — just as most people must break through a shell of timidity and strain.
Everybody Is Talented
Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express. Try not expressing anything for twenty-four hours and see what happens. You will nearly burst. You will want to write a long letter or draw a picture or sing, or make a dress or a garden. Religious men used to go into the wilderness and impose silence on themselves, but it was so that they would talk to God and nobody else. But they expressed something: that is to say they had thoughts welling up in them and the thoughts went out to someone, whether silently or aloud.
Writing or painting is putting these thoughts on paper. Music is singing them. That is all there is to it.
Everybody Is Original
Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be. Jennings at Johns Hopkins, who knows more about heredity and the genes and chromosomes than any man in the world, says that no individual is exactly like any other individual, that no two identical persons have ever existed. Consequently, if you speak or write from yourself you cannot help being original.
So remember these two things: you are talented, and you are original. Be sure of that. I say this because self-trust is one of the very most important things in writing, and I will tell why later.
This creative power and imagination is in everyone, and so is the need to express it, i.e., to share it with others. But what happens to it?
It is very tender and sensitive, and it is usually drummed out of people early in life by criticism (so-called "helpful criticism" is often the worst kind), by teasing, jeering, rules, prissy teachers, critics, and all those unloving people who forget that the letter killeth and the spirit giveth life. Sometimes I think of life as a process where everybody is discouraging and taking everybody else down a peg or two.
You know how all children have this creative power. You have all seen things like this: the little girls in our family used to give play after play. They wrote the plays themselves (they were very good plays too, interesting, exciting, and funny). They acted in them. They made the costumes themselves, beautiful, effective, and historically accurate, contriving them in the most ingenious way out of attic junk and their mothers' best dresses. They constructed the stage and theater by carrying chairs, moving the piano, carpentering. They printed the tickets and sold them. They made their own advertising. They drummed up the audience, throwing out a dragnet for all the hired girls, dogs, babies, mothers, neighbors within a radius of a mile or so. For what reward? A few pins and pennies.
Yet these small ten-year-olds were working with feverish energy and endurance. (A production took about two days.) If they had worked that hard for school it probably would have killed them. They were working for nothing but fun, for that glorious inner excitement. It was the creative power working in them. It was hard, hard work, but there was no pleasure or excitement like it, and it was something never forgotten.
But this joyful, imaginative, impassioned energy dies out of us very young. Why? Because we do not see that it is great and important. Because we let dry obligation take its place. Because we don't respect it in ourselves and keep it alive by using it. And because we don't keep it alive in others by listening to them.
For when you come to think of it, the only way to love a person is not, as the stereotyped Christian notion is, to coddle them and bring them soup when they are sick, but by listening to them and seeing and believing in the god, in the poet, in them. For by doing this, you keep the god and the poet alive and make it flourish.
How does the creative impulse die in us? The English teacher who wrote fiercely on the margin of your theme in blue pencil: "Trite, rewrite," helped to kill it. Critics kill it, your family. Families are great murderers of the creative impulse, particularly husbands. Older brothers sneer at younger brothers and kill it. There is that American pastime known as "kidding" — with the result that everyone is ashamed and hangdog about showing the slightest enthusiasm or passion or sincere feeling about anything. But I will tell more about that later.
You have noticed how teachers, critics, parents, and other know-it-alls, when they see you have written something, become at once long-nosed and finicking and go through it gingerly sniffing out the flaws. AHA! a misspelled word! as though Shakespeare could spell! As though spelling, grammar and what you learn in a book about rhetoric has anything to do with freedom and the imagination!
A friend of mine spoke of books that are dedicated like this: "To my wife, by whose helpful criticism ..." and so on. He said the dedication should really read: "To my wife. If it had not been for her continual criticism and persistent nagging doubt as to my ability, this book would have appeared in Harper's instead of The Hardware Age."
So often I come upon articles written by critics of the very highest brow, and by other prominent writers, deploring the attempts of ordinary people to write. The critics rap us savagely on the head with their thimbles, for our nerve. No one but a virtuoso should be allowed to do it. The prominent writers sell funny articles about all the utterly crazy, fatuous, amateurish people who think they can write.
Well, that is all right. But this is one of the results: 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; whose attitude is:
"Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out."
And if you have no such friend — and you want to write — well, then you must imagine one.
Yes, I hate orthodox criticism. I don't mean great criticism, like that of Matthew 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 straitjackets 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.
Of course, in fairness, I must remind you of this: we writers are the most lily-livered of all craftsmen. We expect more, for the most peewee efforts, than any other people.
A gifted young woman writes a poem. It is rejected. She does not write another perhaps for two years, perhaps all her life. Think of the patience and love that a tap-dancer or vaudeville acrobat puts into his work. Think of how many times Kreisler has practiced trills. If you will write as many words as Kreisler has practiced trills I prophesy that you will win the Nobel Prize in ten years.
But 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.
And so now you will begin to work at your writing. Remember these things. Work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as though they were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.
And so that you will work long hours and not neglect it, I will now prove that it is important for yourself that you do so.CHAPTER 2
Imagination Is the Divine Body in Every Man
* * *
I HAVE PROVED THAT YOU ARE ALL ORIGINAL AND talented and need to let it out of yourselves; that is to say, you have the creative impulse.
But the ardor for it is inhibited and dried up by many things; as I said, by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear that expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.
Now this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost. My theology may not be very accurate, but that is how I think of it. I know that William Blake called this creative power the Imagination, and he said it was God. He, if anyone, ought to know, for he was one of the greatest poets and artists that ever lived.
Now Blake thought that this creative power should be kept alive in all people for all of their lives. And so do I. Why? Because it is life itself. It is the Spirit. In fact it is the only important thing about us. The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.
How could we keep it alive? By using it, by letting it out, by giving some time to it. But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or to play the piano. And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.
They do not know, as Blake did, that this is a fearful sin against themselves. They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over the sunset, as they wanted to.
I have to stop here and tell you a little about Blake. This is to show you the blessings of using your creative power. To show you what it is (which may take me a whole book) and what it feels like.
Blake used to say, when his energies were diverted from his drawing or writing, "that he was being devoured by jackals and hyenas." And his love of Art (i.e., expressing in painting or writing the ideas that came to his Imagination) was so great that he would see nothing but Art in anything he loved. And so, as he loved the Apostles and Jesus, he used to say that "they were all artists."
God he often called the "Poetic Genius," and he said "He who loves feels love descend into him and if he has wisdom, may perceive it is from the Poetic Genius, which is the Lord."
Now this free abundant use of his creative power made him one of the happiest men who ever lived. He wrote copious endless poetry (without the slightest hope or concern that it would ever be published). For a time he thought that if he wrote less he would do more engraving and painting. He stopped it for a month or more. But he found on comparison that he did more painting when he let out this inspired visionary writing. All of which proves, I think, that the more you use this joyful creative power — like the little girls producing the plays — the more you have.
As for Blake's happiness — a man who knew him said: "If asked whether I ever knew among the intellectual, a happy man, Blake would be the only one who would immediately occur to me."
And yet this creative power in Blake did not come from ambition. (I think ambition injures it and makes it a nervous strain and hard work.) He burned most of his own work. Because he said: "I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy."
As an old man, his wish for a little girl was "that God might make His world as beautiful to her as it had been to him."
He did not mind death in the least. He said that to him it was just like going into another room. On the day of his death he composed songs to his Maker and sang them for his wife to hear. Just before he died his countenance became fair, his eyes brightened and he burst into singing of the things he saw in heaven.
"The death of a saint!" said a poor charwoman who had come in to help Mrs. Blake.
Yet this was the man who said most of us mix up God and Satan. He said that what most people think is God is merely prudence, and the restrainer and inhibitor of energy, which results in fear and passivity and "imaginative dearth."
And what we so often call "reason" and think is so fine is not intelligence or understanding at all, but just this: it is arguing from our memory and the sensations of our body and from the warnings of other people that if we do such and such a thing we will be uncomfortable. "It won't pay." "People will think it is silly." "No one else does it." "It is immoral."
But the only way you can grow in understanding and discover whether a thing is good or bad, Blake says, is to do it. "Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires."
For this "Reason," as Blake calls it (which is really just caution), continually nips and punctures and shrivels the imagination and the ardor and the freedom and the passionate enthusiasm welling up in us. It is Satan, Blake said. It is the only enemy of God. "For nothing is pleasing to God except the invention of beautiful and exalted things." And when a prominent citizen of his time, a logical, opining, erudite, measured, rationalistic Know-it-all, warned people against "mere enthusiasm," Blake wrote furiously (he was a tender-hearted, violent, and fierce red-haired man): "Mere Enthusiasm is the All in All!"
I tell you all this because I hope to prove to you the importance of your working at writing, at some creative thing that you care about. Because only if I can make you feel that, will you do it and persist in it. And not only for the next few weeks! I want you to do it for years to come, all your life!
We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first — at least for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you will use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, lighthearted, and generous to everybody else. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom.
I know a very great woman who makes her living by teaching violin lessons in the daytime. (Her name is Francesca and I may have to speak of her later.) Then from midnight until five o'clock in the morning, she is happy because she can work on her book. This is her daily routine. The book is her life work. She has been working at it for thirty years. In it she hopes to explain to people how they can learn to play the violin beautifully in two years instead of ten, and she wants them to know this because playing great music will do so much for them (all).
One day she came to me and had a very bad cold. "Oh, lie down quick!" I exclaimed, "and I will get you some hot lemonade and put a shawl over yourself."
She opened her eyes wide at me, and said almost with horror in her voice:
"Oh, that is no way to treat a cold! ... No, I slumped a little yesterday and so I caught it. But I worked all night and it is much, much better now."
Excerpted from If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. Copyright © 1987 Estate of Brenda Ueland. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsBrenda Ueland's Wings Shop by Andrei Codrescu,
Preface, 1983 by Brenda Ueland,
I. Everybody Is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say,
II. "Imagination Is the Divine Body in Every Man" — William Blake,
III. Why a Renaissance Nobleman Wrote Sonnets,
IV. The Imagination Works Slowly and Quietly,
V. "Sooner Strangle an Infant in Its Cradle Than Nurse Unacted Desires" — William Blake,
VII. Be Careless, Reckless! Be a Lion! Be a Pirate! When You Write,
VIII. Why You Are Not to Be Discouraged, Annihilated, by Rejection Slips,
IX. People Confuse the Human and the Divine Ego,
X. Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing,
XI. Microscopic Truthfulness,
XII. Art Is Infection,
XIII. The Third Dimension,
XIV. Keep a Slovenly, Headlong, Impulsive, Honest Diary,
XV. You Do Not Know What Is in You — an Inexhaustible Fountain of Ideas,
XVI. On Using the Imagination,
XVII. "The Tigers of Wrath Are Wiser Than the Horses of Instruction" — William Blake,
XVIII. "He Whose Face Gives No Light Shall Never Become a Star" — William Blake,