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

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But we must try to find our True Conscience, our True Self, the very Center, for this is the only first-rate choice-making center. Here lies all originality, talent, honor, truthfulness, courage and cheerfulness. Here lies the ability to choose the good and the grand, the true and the beautiful.

In her ninety-three remarkable years, Brenda Ueland published six million words. She said she had two rules she followed to tell the truth, and not to do anything she didn't want to do. Her integrity shines throughout If You Want to Write , her bestselling classic on the process of writing that has already inspired
thousands to find their own creative center. Carl Sandburg called this book "the best book ever written about how to write." Yet Ueland reminds us that "whenever I say ‘writing' in this book, I also mean anything that you love and want to do or make."

180 pages, Paperback

First published February 21, 2012

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About the author

Brenda Ueland

11 books114 followers
Brenda Ueland was a journalist, editor, freelance writer, and teacher of writing. She is best known for her book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.

Ueland was born to Andreas and Clara Hampson Ueland; the third of seven children. She attended Wells and Barnard colleges and received her baccalaureate from Barnard in 1913. She lived in and around New York City for much of her adult life before returning to Minnesota in 1930.

Ueland was raised in a relatively progressive household; her father, an immigrant from Norway, was a prominent lawyer and judge. Her mother was a suffragette and served as the first president of the Minnesota League of Women Voters. Ueland would spend her life as a staunch feminist and is said to have lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn't want to.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 765 reviews
Profile Image for Leonard Gaya.
Author 1 book935 followers
April 30, 2022
Brenda Ueland is like the granny of creativity analeptics that flourish on every “personal growth” shelf. All the successful how-to-write guides, from Cameron to Goldberg and Lamott, are indebted to Ueland. Indeed, when she published her book in the 1930s, putting literary creativity within everyone’s reach (cf. MFAs and Creative Writing programmes) wasn’t a thing. So, her idea of democratising the art of writing and encouraging people to express their talent was nothing short of ground-breaking.

If You Want to Write also feels slightly different from more recent creativity bootstrapping books. It is made of a series of little essays, loosely bundled together, which makes it an example of the type of writing Ueland advocates. It is also less reliant on disputable formulas (12 weeks programme, X number of specific exercises and so on) and more based on the author’s acquaintance with the works of classic authors like Blake and Tolstoy.

The heart of her advice is not very complicated: anyone has creative potential, and writing is available to anyone who went to school and has a pencil and paper at hand. The trick is to practice relentlessly and fearlessly, and express oneself spontaneously, honestly, and without affectation—i.e., the will to impress or perform.

Yet, some of her arguments often sound a bit naïve or, perhaps, solely concerned with the act of writing for oneself and a few benevolent loved ones. For instance, when saying that plain “enthusiasm” and “truthfulness” is enough, she also suggests that craft, composition, and careful revision, aren’t necessary. This may be valid to produce a first draft, but the argument becomes contentious beyond that point. Also, she almost entirely dismisses the value of cultural awareness and the development of literary taste. Finally, while she is correct in saying that nearly everyone can write, the slightly more depressing truth is that very few can hope to make a living out of their artistic production.

Nonetheless, a warm and encouraging little pick-me-up.
Profile Image for Leanne.
69 reviews11 followers
June 4, 2012
If you want to read a good book about writing, don't read this one. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Read On Writing by Stephen King. Read anything else, really.

The redeeming factors of this book were:
1. It was short(!), and

2. It made me realize that Van Gogh was kind of a badass, and I'll probably go out of my way to learn more about him.

Onto the not-so redeeming factors...!
1. I have a huge, nagging suspicion that Ms. Ueland is not a very good reader. One of the things that makes me long to write and write well is how much I enjoy reading. She does not like Dickens. She does not like F. Scott Fitzgerald. She thinks that a lot of people "read to waste time" and "be entertained." The lengths she went to to put in these tidbits of information made me blatantly dislike her.

Just because you find reading "entertaining" or you read something that may not be heralded as literature, does not mean that you can't get something worthwhile and meaningful from it. It makes me want to retreat into a cozy little corner with some tea and Stephen King. In On Writing, he tells it like it is: If you want to be a writer, and you're not writing at that exact moment-- the next best thing you can and should be doing is READING. And he doesn't discriminate. Read anything! I agree with that sentiment. Even reading filth is going to teach you something about not writing filth. So read. Read Dickens. Read F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read to waste time and be entertained.

Girl just pushed my buttons, to be honest. She's a bit of a priggish snot about Fitzgerald, Dickens, and books that don't meet her exact literary standards, and it irks me.

2. This is my very personal opinion and I certainly respect others' right to disagree with it, but -- for me -- I would have liked her to cut at least A THIRD of her references to God and Christianity. Anne Lamott briefly mentions God/religion/spirituality in Bird by Bird, but she does it in a way that's unobtrusive and doesn't make the reading any less accessible to people of different faiths, beliefs, mindsets, etc. I think religion is a very personal thing, and -- if you're trying to reach as many people as possible -- I think it's always safe to keep it vague or to a minimum.

3. I'm not sure whether to say this or not. Or how to say it, really. She encourages people to write-- even if it seems simple or conversational. She encourages people to write what's on their minds -- to get to the truth of matters -- instead of obsessively polishing writing to the detriment of its original intent/meaning. Makes sense. I'm on board.

HOWEVER, the author spews out all of this writing and life advice and, well, I don't think she's a great writer. I don't think there's anything particularly masterful about her style. She doesn't write lyrically (she admits that), but she doesn't write bluntly and truthfully either. Her writing style isn't concise. It's not funny. It's not unique. It's not my thing.

Profile Image for PhilorChelsy.
66 reviews3 followers
March 20, 2008
If you want to Write, or do ANYthing you are passionate about...draw, paint, teach, imagine, create...this book inspires. I even had to blog it (www.burnah.blogspot.com) To really remember it, I want to put it down here:
My favorite word in the book: "Waggish" Meaning fanciful, whimsy, silly.
Some favorite quotes:
"Van Gogh said: "If you hear a voice within you saying: you are not painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working."
"the creative impluse of Van Gogh, a great genius, was simply loving what he saw and then wanting to share it with others, not for the purpose of showing off, but out of generosity."
"If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take it's place later. What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth....later if you find what you wrote isn't true, accept the new truth."
"...for what is true to you today may not be true at all tomorrow, because you see a better truth."
"He knows himself greatly who never opposes his genius." (William Blake)
"Conceit is....a static state where you rest on some past (or fancied) accomplishment....But self-confidence never rests, but is always working and striving, and it is always modest and grateful and open to what is new and better."
"...if you want your children to be musicians, then work at music yourself, seriously and with all your intelligence. If you want them to be scholars, study hard yourself. If you want them to be honest, be honest yourself."
"...women who do too much house work should neglect it for their writing" [art, music, etc] :) hehe
"...how do these creative thoughts come? They come in a slow way. It is the little bomb of revelation bursting inside of you...."I see, I understand that now!" and a feeling of happiness."
"...in time he even may come to understand what Christ did....how if one is great and imaginative enough one can honor and love people with all their limitations."
"...the true self, the imagination, or the Holy Ghost, or the Conscience. It is what is always searching in us and trying to free what we really think, from what we think we ought to think..."
"Now this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost....William Blake called this creative power the Imagination, and he said it was God."
"Now Blake thought 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."
"writing [or art, music, photography, inspiration] is this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it. If they did not--fine. They did not need to listen. That was all right too."
"van Gogh wrote..."I tell you the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people."
"Yes, I am against all anxiety, worry. There are many people, you can see, who consider worry a kind of duty. Back of this I think it is the subconscious feeling that Fate or God is mean or resentful or tetchy and that if we do not worry enough we will certainly catch it from Him.
But they should remember that Christ said that we should cast off anxiety so that we could "seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and His righteousness" (i.e., live creatively, greatly, seekingly, in the present) "and all these things" (beauty, happiness, goodness, talent, food, and clothing) "will be added unto you." Of course He is right."

Profile Image for Jenna.
Author 10 books332 followers
July 4, 2015
I first read this book when I was 13, so I can't vouch for how useful it might be to an adult reader. All I know is that no book has changed my life as dramatically as this one did when I was 13. I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say that this book has the power to cure minor mental disorders and to help you find direction in your life. Reading this book was like one long epiphany for me. It is an energizing read, written in simple, clear, vivacious prose by a woman without a shred of pomposity but with fierce, passionate beliefs about art and individualism, a la William Blake.

Looking at this book from a more detached perspective, I think Ueland could justly be viewed as a proponent of American Romanticism, a scion of the nature-based (as opposed to nurture-based, or formal-education-based) philosophical tradition that gave us greats like Whitman and Thoreau and e.e. cummings. If you liked "Walden," you'll almost definitely love this book. It's quite a bit like "Walden" in spirit, actually, except that its scope is somewhat narrower and it's less self-righteous and significantly easier to read.
Profile Image for Sally Maria.
59 reviews4 followers
June 29, 2010
I had to read the book Carl Sandburg said was the best book ever on writing.

The poem that came:

If You Want To Write*
For Brenda Ueland (1891-1985)

I found you in a box,
broken now, mildewed,
packed with the crème,
books read in college
barely recollected,
dog eared pages,
notes in tea-stained
margins, a badge of honor
for any author.

I would have set you aside,
dismissed you as self-help,
thought you antiquated,
Book of the month,
had he not spoken of you
with reverence, perhaps
even awe, this scientist
to whom all things
must be proven.

I ate your words
as if I were starving,
this book, less about writing
than living or God, the real
God, God forgotten.

How I wish you had been
my teacher
who would have emblazoned
TRUTH in the middle of my forehead.
We would have exchanged letters
I couldn’t wait to open,
they would be saved,
tied with white ribbon,
put in a box I would carry
forever, mildewed, sacred.

*If you Want to Write: A book about art, independence and Spirit
by Brenda Ueland, 1938
Profile Image for Cynthia Arrieu-King.
Author 9 books25 followers
July 23, 2007
I have read this book every couple of years since I was a teenager. I gave it to my Dad to read and he loved it, and said it was so hard to get through because every line was true and made you sit there in awe wondering about your life. I think it's true you have to forget the blahness of similarly titled books and know this book is as much about how to live as how to write. This author wrote it in 1932 or so, and lived to be an octegenarian swimmer. She constantly quotes Keats, Blake, Dostoevsky, Chekov, etc. as if they are flowing in her veins or perhaps under her feet. Anyone I've met who read it said, oh yes, they too read it every few years. So get one!
Profile Image for Darek.
14 reviews15 followers
April 9, 2016
First of all - English is my second language, I am deeply sorry for my mistakes.
It's hard to describe my disappointment with Ueland's book. What a waste of time and money. It is so short, yet so painfully monotonous, filled with long excerpts taken from diaries and letters of few famous artists (mostly van Gogh, Blake and "Great Russians") and pupils from Ueland's writing class.
While the author often mocks the great writers that she personally dislikes (Steinbeck? Scott Fitzgerald, seriously?), her own style is desperately dull and non-inventive. Not to mention useless tirades full of Coelho'esque esoteric cliches and countless references to God and Christianity.
What really irritated me was the contrast between her (self-proclaimed) modesty and frequent, mean attacks against everyone, who does not blindly flow with his or her emotions and contempt for everyone, who dares to think critically (her advice for a man that brought up his kids in rational atmosphere - "I think he might as well have taken them out in the backyard and killed them with an ax").
All these tendencies culminate in the Chapter XVII, which basically encourages all people to become compulsive writers and just fill the world with nonsensical flood of words. In the last paragraphs Ueland expresses her conviction, that emotions (unlike arguments and facts) are always a great positive force. I simply can not agree with that - many mass murderers and tyrants considered themselves artists, without reason and moral introspection art can be a great destructive force, too!
Ueland finishes with following words : "I believe this book will hasten the Millenium by two or three hundreds years". So much for her modesty, I guess.

Profile Image for Tara.
Author 23 books559 followers
October 31, 2019
I've had this on my nightstand for many years and finally got around to reading it. Originally pubbed in the 1930s, Graywolf Press did the world a favor and reprinted it. While I skimmed over many of the student writing examples, I heavily dogeared many pages of wisdom:

For mothers: "They sense that if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good. . . . You cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all." While I think that someone who always does something for others could be flipped as doing something for yourself, there is something to inspiring your children spiritually.

Finding your true self: "And why find it? Because it is . . . the way to be happier and greater."

For all: "One of the very worst, self-murdering lies that people tell themselves is that they are no good and have no gift and nothing important to say."

A gem, despite the many didactic examples that weren't for me.
Profile Image for Julia.
1 review
July 28, 2009
I never had any aspirations of becoming a writer. Writing, to me, was not enjoyable. I did not feel freed, or accomplished, and as though I had created a piece of art when I got done writing a paper. Papers were written for the sole purpose of impressing the teacher and getting a good grade.

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit completely changed my notion about writing. It made me understand that writing, or painting, acting or whatever else you want to do, does not have to be drudgery.

Ueland has showed me, that only if you let your creativity flow freely, without being imprisoned by any rules and restrictions, can you break free and create something true, something interesting.

In the first chapter of her book Ueland declares, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say” (3). And this is so very true; you might just not know it yet. Only if you say what you truly mean, is what you write going to be a success.

This book has taught me to fully rely on my instincts when writing, or doing anything else for that matter. In the words of Brenda Ueland, “art must be truly felt and cannot be willed” (107). After reading this book, writing papers seemed to become a bit easier. I had to start thinking of “telling a story, not of writing it” (93). Keeping that in mind, ideas come to me more easily. I do not feel caged in anymore.

Every student should read this book because it helps to understand that there is so much more to writing than the grammar, rules, and formats the English teachers forced into our heads. Another thing that is great about this book is that Ueland never tells the reader he has to do anything. No, she purely speaks from experience and explains to the reader how she had to teach herself to let go, and free herself of all inhibitions. There are no rules in her book, only suggestions as to how to free your creative spirit. While reading the book, you can tell how much Ueland believes in what she has written.

If You Want to Write A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland If You Want to Write A Book about Art, Independence and SpiritBrenda Ueland
Profile Image for christina.
72 reviews9 followers
May 21, 2009
This is by far and away the best book I have ever read on writing, and I have read a number of them.

Her approach is one of pure enthusiasm and letting go of your notions of writing "well" or worrying about your "style", instead she advocates tapping into what is true and genuine for you and just putting the words on paper, and seeing what happens.

I plan on purchasing her fictional and memoir books, and re-reading parts of this book for inspiration for a long time.

Profile Image for K.M. Weiland.
Author 33 books2,333 followers
November 12, 2020
Such a beautifully inspiring book on so many levels beyond just writing. The middle chapters get a little boggy with examples from Ueland’s writing students, but even they have insights to offer.
Profile Image for Nat.
201 reviews7 followers
May 29, 2013
I'm going to go against the crowd here. I liked the book. However, it was not as life changing for me as it was for the many who have read it.

This would have made a good pamphlet or even blog post. Why? It's repetitious. I do agree with Brenda Ueland's theory that writing (or any type of creative work) must be true to yourself. It's always your own voice that comes out the best in whatever you do.

I also agree with her assessment of critics. What really do they know? I cannot think of one critic who has written a phenomenal book, but I can think of numerous authors who have made good critics. I would take a recommended reading list from an author over a critic any day.

Positive encouragement and finding your own structure are things that are sorely lacking in our literary and educational circles today. It was a little bit of a shock to me that she recognized this in the 1920s and 1930s. Some things never change.

Well, I may be wrong there. In some ways I think we are too positive and self-affirming in teaching others. (Think children's soccer games where everyone wins.)

But repeating what I said earlier (yes, I see what I did there), the author could have stopped after the first couple of chapters. The rest are all affirmations of her thesis.

Still it's one of the better "how to write,"...er, "how to be creative" works I've read.
118 reviews
February 20, 2010
"This book should be a great help in the freeing of your thoughts and the genius that is in all of us." Great opener, eh? I believe in Ueland's thesis that: "everybody is talented, original and has something important to say." I also believe, as she does, that "this creative power I think is the Holy Ghost." She further thinks that most creativity is "drummed out of people early in life by criticism." I think her philosophy applies to any creative process (wood working, gardening, painting, quilting, etc.--anything you love, really). She wrote this book in 1938, and she died in 1985 at age 93. She believed in long walks (as healthy and also to show respect for this earth) and deep listening (to show love to those around us), and I find her a wonderful role model. Her book is partly warm reassurance, and partly a kick in the pants.

Other favorite quotes:
"everyone is ashamed and hang-dog about showing the slightest enthusiasm or passion or sincere feeling about anything."

"Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself."

"Resign yourself tranquilly to doing something slow and worthless for at least an hour."

"work hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important."
Profile Image for JZ.
708 reviews89 followers
January 1, 2019
This is who I want to listen to, telling me that I'm a writer, I have something to say, and I can say it better than my first draft. I love this woman, and her kindness and generosity. I want to write like never before. Her enthusiasm for letting your art through is useful for my other artistic endeavors, too.
In the last year, I've read many of the classic writing books, but none have the warmth that this one does. Not even Natalie Goldberg, who I love, too, or Ann Lamott, or Mary Karr, or Stephen King, who totally turned me off when He said that this was not an autobiography, and proceeded to bore me with his life story for hours before he got to the writing part. Really. Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method is great and inspiring, but not as friendly as Brenda.
So, now, go read or listen to Brenda if you want to be inspired. She was amazing. Go find out for yourself.
Profile Image for Ada.
343 reviews36 followers
March 20, 2014
I found something in this book that I lost several years ago. I am so happy to have found inspiration from Brenda to finally follow through with my dreams. The last sentence in this book is as follows, "And if it has given you the impulse to write one small story, then I am pleased." I have rediscovered my voice and started writing again all because of the guidance that this book offered me.
Profile Image for Adam.
Author 1 book8 followers
January 12, 2013
A must-read for those trying to find their voice in any creative endeavor.
Profile Image for pnutbutterprincess.
83 reviews47 followers
August 14, 2013
Constantly, I fall into reading books about writing without having read any other book by the author (John Gardner, Stephen King, and now Brenda Ueland, to name a few off the top of my head). I won't mince words, I really like reading books about writing, not for "tips and tricks" or secrets, but to catch some of the light coming off of the authors, some little shards of passion, and also to see what drives other writers to, well, write. I loved the books on writing that I read by both of the aforementioned authors as well, On Becoming a Novelist and On Writing, and while I definitely would recommend both books, If You Want to Write presents itself as just as inspiring and helpful, if not more so. In this book, Brenda writes about the origin of Inspiration and some of the things that will stifle it, a lot of things in fact. But "getting inspiration" to write is not such a big deal after all. So often it seems like people are waiting for the fabled Lightning Bolt of Inspiration, when, Brenda says, all they really need is to invite the inspiration by positioning yourself intentionally and it will come. Not Lightning-Bolt style, but slowly. Where some books on writing talk about writing and it's all very delightful but there isn't a whole lot you can do besides get caught up in the excitement and then sit down only to find it didn't really affect your writing "ability," If You Want to Write is more practical. Brenda sits down with you and says yes, you can write wonderful things and true things, unique things because you are unique and your inner self knows what if true if you let it speak. The encouragement and insight poured out in this little book have not been Inspiration, but have shown me how to find my own Inspiration, and that is a gift that won't change or fade.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
130 reviews2 followers
December 5, 2011
A quote from the Preface to Second Edition:

"At that time when I was writing the book, Carl Sandburg, an old friend, was at our house. Sometimes, looking out at Lake Calhoun in the cold November evening, he would begin to thunder in his mighty voice (so much like Isaiah's, I used to think) about the wild grey waves, the North wind, the new moon, the gunmetal sky. He liked the book.
He said: 'That is the best book ever written about how to write.'"

I agree... Brenda Ueland, YOU ROCK!!! (And this book was published in 1938).

Never have I felt so close to an author's writing, I would choose to have tea with her over almost anyone in history. This lady is a visionary so far reaching, it touched me incredibly. To end with another quote from Ueland, the last three paragraphs of the book which explain that she feels she is far reaching as well:

"And why should you do all these things? Why should we all use our creative power and write or paint or play music, or whatever it tells us to do?

"Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it, i.e., share it with others?

"And so I really believe this book will hasten the Millennium by two or three hundred years. And if it has given you the impulse to write one small story, then I am pleased."

Profile Image for Kimberly.
15 reviews2 followers
June 29, 2007
This is the holy grail of creativity. I read many books about creative people's lives, hoping to glean some knowledge and inspiration. This book is the motherload, the culmination............The author is a writer as well as a teacher, which gives her the birds eye view as well as being a layperson in this field. Although her subject is creativity and imagination in writing, I find that substituting "music" or even just "creativity" for "writing", this book applies whatever field you need it to.

At the end of her book, she provides a summary list of her main points; they are simple yet fucking insightful list. Here are just a few.

1. Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say
2. Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privlege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxiousw vanity and fear of failure.
3. [Create] freely, recklessly, in first drafts.
10. When discourage, remember what Van Gogh said: "If you heard a voice within you saying: You are no painter, then paint by no means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working"
Profile Image for Paula Cappa.
Author 14 books486 followers
December 11, 2014
I discovered this book at the International Miami Book Fair (Greywolf Press). What a gem! Do you want to know how true creative power flourishes? Read this book. It's a writing book, but you won't find anything here about plot, characterization, POV, or structure. This is about the creative process and I couldn't stop reading it. Brenda Ueland has not only a fine intelligence about writing, but she understands creativity better than most writing teachers or workshop leaders who tend to drill mechanics, index cards, and outline theories. I especially like Ueland's insights for the fiction writer who is struggling. She compares creative writing to a river that "will begin to flow through you." She believes in freeing yourself to write. Lots of references to Tolstoy and Blake; fears, love, enthusiasm, the imagination. I've been a fiction writer for years with two books and short stories published--and I have twelve writing books on my shelf. This one is the #1 BEST! I wish I had read it years ago.
Profile Image for Rose.
Author 15 books17 followers
January 1, 2008
Brenda Ueland spent most of her ninety-three years as a writer. "If You Want To Write", which was originally published in 1938, is her best-selling guidebook to finding your own creative center and expressing it through lively and memorable prose. Carl Sandburg called it "the best book ever written about how to write."

Ueland advises that artistic genius exists within all of us, and awakening it is a simple matter: write about what genuinely interests you, and be honest with yourself and your audience while doing so. The book is directed more toward fiction writers than those who specialize in nonfiction, but some of Ueland's suggestions can be applied universally. For example, be passionate about your subject. Otherwise your article or manuscript will be as dry as a newspaper article, and just as forgettable.
Profile Image for Pat Stanford.
Author 4 books26 followers
January 21, 2021
I saw some of the 3 star reviews after I was almost finished reading. Yes. The language is very dated. It was 1938 and a completely different world then.

I actually found it to be very quaint in its simplicity. But the only real message is "if you want to write, do it without listening to negative voices, whether your own, or outside influences." And I would have to agree that that message could have been delivered in a 2,000 word article, not repeated over and over in a book.

I'd have to say that the repetitivness was not the main annoyance, but rather the incessant use of foot notes, instead of just using them as an aside in the body of the narrative. But I guess footnotes were more popular in 1938.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
672 reviews92 followers
July 9, 2019
An extremely warm and encouraging book for anyone who wants to write but is afraid not being able to write well. It's a good book (I am trying hard to rid of my cynicism), except that some analogs are out-of-date.

This is what I get from Brenda Ueland's essays:
-- Trust yourself. Believe in you. Believe that you have an unique story (or stories) to tell.
-- Write in a "dreamy" way, which, according my understanding, is actually a highly concentrated mental state, a mental flow.
-- Tell the story first, worry about structures and words later
-- Ignore criticism, including and especially self-criticism.
-- Do keep writing
Profile Image for Jenny.
1,078 reviews31 followers
September 25, 2007
I'm usually a bit gunshy of "how to write" books, but I thought this one came pretty close to being as good as they get. The focus was on fidelity to the self and how to let one's voice out. I liked the image of Christ as the most creative person to have ever lived. I really liked chapter 10: Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing (to set a good example for the children--menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the holy ghost).
Profile Image for John Pistelli.
Author 8 books274 followers
December 4, 2020
Due to the author's local fame, I used to see this book in a store that sold pricey gifts and knick-knacks to upper-middle-class women. It looked a little more intellectual than the other merchandise—I myself only ever bought expensive chocolate, scented candles, and the occasional stuffed animal there—so when I found it recently in a Little Free Library I decided to investigate further. After reading the book, I am faced with the old dilemma: should the critic write a bad review? Isn't it better to celebrate what it is good, true, and beautiful than to whine about what's bad, false, and ugly? The question answers itself, and with another: how will we know what is bad, false, and ugly if no one bothers to point it out? The shade of the intrepid Ms. Ueland will have to forgive me, but I am about to point it out. She has for her consolation her book's still being in print almost three decades after her own death.

I cannot imagine a more discouraging text than this 1938 tract "about Art, Independence and Spirit" for those who want to write but aren't sure how to start. For Ueland, you must first become a great and simple soul before you put pen to paper.

Her hero is Tolstoy, and she quotes throughout the book his praise for clean-living and peasant simplicities. (She was also a feminist and the daughter of a suffragette, so her several sallies throughout this book against tyrannical husbands who prevent their wives from writing clash with the Tolstoy-worship, given that he nearly enslaved his own wife to his literary, spiritual, and sexual will—but perhaps these sordid details weren't well-known at the time.) Though Tolstoy was an aristocrat, and Ueland herself apparently well-off, her favorite students are the poor ones, because they write without affectation about their humble lives. Her other hero besides Tolstoy is Blake, who advocated the divine energy that inspires all true art. He too lived simply and produced much poetry and art that at least seems simple. She quotes his aphorism several times: "Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." (Which invites the objection: what if one desires to strangle an infant in its cradle? I despise top-down exercises of authority more than anyone, so it's a shame that anarchist and libertarian ideals are often expressed so stupidly.)

Ueland updates the Blakean and Tolstoyan antinomianism for the modern writing class. If she gives any practical technical advice at all, it is to write what you see with the energy of your soul, preferably in the least "literary" language you can find, unless your soul commands you to write otherwise. The last clause is important, because for Ueland writing is not a craft or a tradition or even an art, but an expression of the divine spark within oneself. How could I describe a creed that sounds so positive (be yourself! follow your bliss!) as discouraging? Because Ueland's readers, beginning writers who thought they were faced with the problem of how to learn a new art form, now find that they are faced with the problem of their souls:
Tolstoi, Ibsen, Blake, Goethe, Thomas Mann and all great men, known or unknown, famous or obscure,—they are great men in the first place and so they cannot say anything that is not important, not a single word. Their writing, their art is merely a by-product, a cast-off creation of a great personality.
This is a dangerously servile way to think about other people, and a fatally arrogant way to think about oneself. Whereas to think both of one's own writing and the writing of others as an art rather than an expression of self is much more usefully humbling, even as it is a legitimate goad to ambition. Tolstoy managed to write great novels—and some not-so-great stories and essays—while bearing a more troubled soul than Ueland seems to have known; and it's hard, complex, intellectual work writing prose as superficially simple as Tolstoy's.

Unfortunately, if you come into Ueland's class without first being a great soul, or, the next best thing, a "little servant girl" (as she describes one of her students) or someone with a "poetic" ethnicity ("She was Irish and had a soft and very beautiful voice. That, I saw at once, meant that she could write too"; "And see how all people in Mexico are such great artists! The poorest Mexican cannot touch any work without making it lovely"), then you're probably not going to make it as a writer. Today's calls to abolish the teaching of difficult and complicated literature—in which our current activists were preceded by Tolstoy's manifesto, What Is Art? —are in perfect continuity with Ueland's own patronizing identitarianism and hatred of the aesthetic, despite the dead-white-maleness of her canon headed by Blake and Tolstoy and also including Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Van Gogh, and her friend and contemporary Carl Sandburg (who impartially called this "the best book ever written about how to write").

While our current canon-smashers claim only to want to diversify the curriculum on unimpeachable gender and race grounds, it's hard to imagine people who claim that students should be exposed only to the contemporary, relevant, and transparent approving the dense modernist symbolism of Ralph Ellison or the non-linear psychological and historical involutions of Toni Morrison. We shouldn't let such arguments fool us: in the name of an equitable state wherein they plan to remain first among equals, these progressive managers want to rob everyone of magnificence, and Ueland, despite the superficial datedness of some of her references and rhetoric, is a prophet of such debased egalitarianism. To quote Theodor Adorno, trained in actual Marxism and not "progressivism": "The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a classless one…" Moreover, there is the educational philosophy of the aforementioned Toni Morrison, which I believe I've quoted here before but which can't be repeated too often:
I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give them the best there is to engage them.
Politics aside, what should you do if you want to write but don't want to tailor your soul to some arbitrary standard of simple greatness? I recommend the reverse of Ueland's advice. Instead of looking around and transcribing what you see, you might first turn your attention to your own favorite piece of writing and try to understand how the author did it. (There is no magic in seeing, any more than there is in "lived experience," today's preferred nostrum; we only have anything that could be called sights and experiences later, when we come to understand in retrospect the chaos we have beheld or endured. Ueland warns readers against describing from memory, whereas I warn against describing from anything else.)

Interestingly, Ueland devotes a whole chapter to "Why a Renaissance Nobleman Wrote Sonnets" despite her beloved Blake and Tolstoy's anti-Renaissance stance; predictably, though, she thinks they did it to express themselves—
One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the nobleman knew and understood his own feeling better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the Italian or the English language was.
—while failing to mention that they were extensively schooled, multi-lingually, in rhetoric and poetics. The sonnets might have come easily, but they came after much instruction and much imitation of models. Imitation of models, not untrammeled self-expression, is the basis of education. It is the basis of individuation tout court, in fact, and our choices—in life as well as literature—are not between imitation and non-imitation, but between conscious active imitation and unwitting thoughtless imitation.

Contra Ueland's bromides ("Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself"), you will achieve spontaneity and originality only after the deliberate absorption of your precursors; if you don't study them consciously, you will only imbibe their influence passively, which will doom your "artless" compositions not to the expression of a primordial self but to a helpless and slavish belatedness. (There is no such thing, by the way, as an artless composition: language as such is artifice. Simplicity is often the most artificial style of all.)

Since the self-help genre's advice-giving posture is as contagious as it is presumptuous, I'll include a message to teachers as well as to budding writers. First, your students' souls are neither your responsibility nor your business; if you think otherwise, you might be not a guide but a tyrant. Second, your students want the best, not condescension in the form of pandering oversimplifications. (And don't raise the race-and-gender straw man please; I am not living in 1938, and as any of my regular readers will know, when I say "the best" I obviously mean Virginia Woolf and Nella Larsen and Derek Walcott and Kazuo Ishiguro, etc., etc.) If you think your students can't understand the human relevance of material that isn't immediately accessible to them, it might be because you haven't done enough to explain it, not because they are too deprived to be addressed as myriad-minded adults.

After all that, I don't mean to say If You Want to Write wholly lacks interest. Ueland is a great quoter, with an eye for memorable Blakean aphorisms ("The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction") and poignant, telling anecdotes about her favorite writers:
Someone asked Ibsen how he happened to name the heroine of "A Doll's House" Nora, and he said: "Well, her real name was Eleanora but they got to calling her Nora as a little girl."
Her few points of practical advice—to describe the particular if you want to capture the universal; to allow ideas to come slowly and without dependence on chemical inducement—are worthwhile. The evidence of her students' compositions, quoted at length, and compared unfavorably to selections from the fashionable magazines of the day, are instructive. Her students' plainer, livelier style is superior to the still somewhat Victorian stiffness of the "slick" magazines; and while I wouldn't base on this one fact an insupportable aesthetic theory about the plain style's genera; superiority, it does provide context for Ueland's judgments.

Her own manner of exhortation can transmit excitement to the reader, enough excitement at least to begin writing. Once the writer is embarked, though, I recommend guides willing to discuss or exemplify techniques and traditions in greater detail—Charles Johnson's essay "A Boot Camp for Creative Writing" is a good if formidable place to start—rather than holding the very idea in contempt. As we've seen, contempt for techniques and traditions, a posture of patronizing naturalness or condescending egalitarianism, may mask a self-congratulatory hatred for far too many of humanity's ambitions and aspirations.
Profile Image for Karen.
Author 9 books121 followers
May 20, 2014
A simple little book, formatted for the Kindle and republished, put up for free one time, and I downloaded it since I compulsively collect books about writing. Not the How-to of writing dialogue or description or plot-outlining, but books about the real art of writing, the truth of it, the flow of creativity that so easily gets blocked. Ueland's book is one of those gems I treasure, to read over and over, because just reading a page or two will open the desire to work, give me the confidence to simply put the words down.

It's a brilliant book, and although some of the language is strange-sounding to our 21st century sentimentality, it gets to the essence of what every writer needs to hear: You can do it. Write what is true. Write what you see. Ignore the critics and the mockers and the correctors and just work. Do the work of a writer.

Reviewers who criticize Ueland for bringing in God and religion into her work are exactly the kind of critics she tells us to ignore. She has no use for people who write to be popular, or to please the critics, or to sell a million books. What she encourages the individual to do is to write from the heart, what they see, what they feel, and to ignore the outside pressures to conform to the standard of the day. Her book may not please our 21st century tendency to not offend anyone. She was writing from her heart, and to share her vision of what art is, and how the writer can create freely. To create art, not to win fans.
Profile Image for Mohammed Morsi.
Author 12 books132 followers
November 16, 2016
It doesn't really matter when I finished or when I began reading this book. What matters, is that it is a journey into a woman's heart and in that journey, it's also, if you are listening carefully a path to your own heart. For in any good writing, there must be the heart.

This book is not so much about writing as it is about how we are imposed certain rules and norms by society and Brenda Ueland honestly lets her dismay for those be aired. She doesn't care about what you think and tells us, if we wish to write well, not to worry about how it sounds. I relate perfectly to sentences that are so overly poetic, so overly worded and dramatised that their meaning is lost. Some times they have their place, some times not.

I have kept this book for years and recommended it to friends who didn't seem to like it as much as I did. I think one of the things you have to be prepared to do with this book, especially if you are already a writer or a journalist for many years as I was when I first picked it up, is to let your armour down. To stop telling wanting to write what you think others want to hear, wanting their acceptance.

Just write from the heart and live from the heart. That is the message of this book and that is why it is worthwhile a read.

Profile Image for Leippya.
17 reviews1 follower
October 18, 2007
The author of this book is unbelievably kind, and it really comes out in the book. She constantly focuses on the positive, and I'm sure she had to be a fantastic teacher. It's a nice read, if you currently feel blocked it's probably the best moment to get this book. However, if your only focus in life is to sell your writing, this might not be the book for you (although it might contain answers if you're failing to sell). This book isn't about skills or market, it's about *being*, it's about attitude -- and I took a lot of notes during my reading because so many things felt like a revelation. I find it sort of difficult to apply her advice to novels, to fiction but I still learnt a lot.

For those who would worry about the age of this book, it doesn't matter -- it's actually surprising to see how little have changed between then and now.

All in all, I recommend reading this book at least once at some point, preferably during one of those moments when you feel down, unsure of yourself and wondering if you actually have any "talent." Brenda Ueland's extraordinary generosity is bound to make an impact.
Profile Image for Sandra Alonzo.
Author 2 books63 followers
June 21, 2011
This is one of those timeless works with tons of good advice about writing. I love Brenda Ueland's philosphy. Here are a few great quotes. The last is my favorite:

"I learned...that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness."

"No writing is a waste of time – no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good."

"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. "

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