If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

It’s been a while since I’ve chosen a book from my library for this blog. Virus and fire have put the fear of angry Mother Nature into me and my thoughts have been mostly short term and skittish. I haven’t experienced such an undercurrent of dread since I listened to the Beatles Revolution #9, forwards. (I was too scared to listen to it backwards and besides, didn’t want to screw up my turntable.) I’ve been longhand journaling, but on sadly mundane topics like home projects, workouts, finances and what I’ve been putting into my mouth. Food, mostly.

During the pandemic I’ve opened book after book from my library, but in rapid and not too thoughtful bursts. One day I dusted the entire collection which I’ve purged down to under 700 volumes. Occasionally I will pull something like Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face or Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry cookbook from the shelves and ask myself, “Do I still care?” Cindy, yes, Thomas no. I may still want advice on applying eye shadow but I could never see myself mincing garlic into identically sized microscopic cubes. Note to Thomas: somewhere, on another reader’s granite countertop, the world’s tiniest kitchen mandolin plays “my fingers bleed for you.” I think it’s Gavin Newsom’s countertop.

So today I put my unbloody index finger on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, then walked it two books over to Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write and pulled it out. My first ex-husband gave me Ueland’s book for Christmas, 1992, and there is a very sweet and well-written note on the title page.

I met my first ex-husband in AP English class, junior year of high school. We’d been married almost ten years by the time he gave me this book. We were living in San Francisco on McAllister Street in the Western Addition, a druggy neighborhood near a Safeway but a step up from our previous digs, a Victorian flat we shared with a crack addict, a guy who worked the lights at a Broadway strip club and two Margaritaville hostesses, all out of work actors.

Although we no longer had a crack addict living in our house, the crack pipe caught up with us when the addict-next-door’s mattress caught fire and burned three apartment buildings, including ours. (More on that when I blog about Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which is what I was reading at the time.)

Ueland wrote the first edition of “If You Want to Write” in 1938. From the editor’s note I learned that she hung out with John Reed and Eugene O’Neill in Greenwich Village in her youth. Later, she taught writing in (much less exciting) Minnesota until the end of her long life. The publishers put a picture of a young Ueland in profile alongside a picture of her at age 91, taken in 1983.

Ueland looks like Lena Dunham in the first picture. That kind of blows me away because what I am doing right now, during this New Year’s long weekend with my boyfriend out of town, is watching all six seasons of Girls. I was well into Season Three when I got inspired by Lena Dunham and her character Hannah Horwath to do some writing for this blog.

In the second picture, as a 91 year old with batshit crazy hair and a striped blazer, Ueland looks like Beetlejuice. I wasn’t expecting Cindy Crawford but Ueland really looks unkempt and mannish.

I hate to say it, but I almost threw the book away after the first couple chapters in which Ueland writes about Van Gogh and Blake and other great artists who didn’t make any money on their work but did it to show the beauty of God and nature to others and/or to really “see” what they were looking at when they looked at the sky or whatever. I found it pretty irritating and boring and so simply put that Cindy could have written it.

My intentions for writing are not that noble. I do love making people think or laugh, but the whole “only god can make a tree,” and Wordsworthian fields of daffodils, however sincere, is such old-fashioned writing I don’t know if we can even call it good anymore–did it really stand the test of time? Even poems like Robert Frost’s Mending Wall or Birches sound maudlin to me now. I can see the genius of Blake but reading him exhausts me. And Van Gogh’s ferocity saves his work from being just a bunch of cypress trees and selfies.

In Chapter 4 Ueland finally gives her first pieces of great advice. In order to write you have to sit and be limp and idle. So even though another of her books is called Strength to Your Sword Arm,” she advises here, “Let Your Noodle Be Limp.”

Ueland writes that inspiration rarely strikes like a Jovian thunderbolt and stories don’t spring fully formed from anywhere. Like meditation, it’s difficult to allow oneself to be limp and open with Covid worries and wildfire agitation. Another sage said good poetry is great emotion recollected in tranquility. Damn if it wasn’t that super-sincere rhymer Wordsworth.

I love what Ueland says about children and being present. You can be present and interested in things when you have no background tapes running, like “Did I leave the iron on?” or “Did I remember to lock the door?” In order to be idle and present and interested in others’ and your surroundings you must let go of trying to dominate your life and force everything into being.

The result of long periods of idleness and thoughtfulness can be great art. This according to Ueland who quotes Tolstoy. She (and Tolstoy) caution against coffee, tobacco, drugs and alcohol because they encourage “mental evacuation”–spewing–and shut off the conscience, which is the true inner critic we need to pay attention to in order to not write obscure drivel.

But regarding the long periods of idleness–people who managed to stay off drugs, social media and too much news during the pandemic may be able to create like crazy post vaccine and herd immunity! I’m already feeling the creative urge since the Trump-Biden election stress has eased.

I love this quote from Chapter 5: “Willing action is sterile and the faster you run, accomplishing a lot of useless things, there you are dead.” My modus operandi is move fast and accomplish a lot. I have a friend who is a prolific and good writer who has never made “to do” lists as far as I know. She has no problem hanging out at a cafe for hours or with activities that I find boring and uncomfortable, like camping in the rain. Although I’ve been called disciplined my whole life, I don’t have that unbounded, comfort with discomfort musculature, and I will never be a great artist, which I think is an ok tradeoff for sleeping in a warm bed every night and not having to kill my own food.

But then, just a footnote later, Ueland shares that she was an awful self-disciplinarian her whole life. She learned to take walks, at least 5-6 miles every day. These walks must not be calisthenic and goal oriented but taken with a fresh look at things along the way. She talks about how movement helped her creative process, but only if the mind is free during the exercise, not counting steps or saying, “let’s get this over with.”

Ueland gives a lot of space to the work of some of her housewife students who are observant and unpretentious writers. She quotes Tolstoy again, on the importance of showing, not telling, and of using your own feelings and experience rather than borrowing from feelings and experiences you’ve heard about second hand. In other words, if your character is bored, use your own experience of boredom to write from.

I was starting to get bored of the book when Ueland began sharing too many (for me) excerpts from her own journal to show how daily writing can be full of striking observations. But then she imparts some loving wisdom that felt like a warm embrace and reminded me of the gentle compassion of a worthy guru. Ueland says that we are full of unmined treasure only we don’t know it, just as having a million dollars in the bank doesn’t do us any good if we are not aware of it. She says, “No one ever calls it out of us, unless we are lucky enough to know intelligent, imaginative, sympathetic people who love us and have the magnanimity to encourage us by listening, by praise, by appreciation, by laughing…”

She gives the excellent example of Socrates, teasing out knowledge with questions and educating people through their own deduction. I think we can do this for ourselves, although it’s not as fun as someone sitting with us and saying, “Yes, and…” Sometimes we need someone who is either very smart and curious or who is equipped professionally to ask the right next questions.

She ends the chapter with a great quote from that spiritual gangster, William Blake, about being fearless and letting your artistic freak flag fly: “Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity. Moderation, caution, measuring, weighing–I will not Reason & Compare, my business is to Create!”

In conclusion, why write with reckless abandon, believing in your gifts and trusting in fiery inspiration from the divine? “Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, bold and compassionate; so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know Truth or Beauty is to express it.”

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