Crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.
Present economic conditions have been serving up a familiar and unsettling feeling of déjà vu of late: some days, it feels as if we are back in the late 1930s only with 24/7 media, social networking, iPhones, and twittering thrown in just to make us wonder if it’s really “Back to the Future” instead.
Still, at a meta-level of our society—what with not-that-long-ago bank failures, stock market slippage, continuing foreclosures and bankruptcies—our plight does have eerie and unsettling parallels with events of seventy-five years in the past. Newspapers and periodicals regularly feature articles about the many programs and U-turns for the United States that, under FDR’s leadership, emerged from the crisis of the Great Depression. I live in a house built in 1938. “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder is in revival (again) on Broadway. Sadly, tent cities are springing up all over the country, only they are being called “Bushvilles” this time around, and deservedly so. All of this and more were some of the reasons I was curious to revisit a writing book that had its genesis in that era.
Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write—a now-classic volume about writing and the creative process—was first published in 1938 and reprinted in paperback by Graywolf Press in 1987. Subtitled A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, the book’s primary thesis edges swiftly and immediately into what can only be called the populist. The title of the first chapter? “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.”
Inclusive exuberance is one of Ueland’s trademarks. She believes everyone and anyone can learn to write, can seek out words and offer up something meaningful to say. She wholeheartedly believes that interesting writing always comes from the unique I that is you, i.e., your authenticity and authority as a living, feeling human being. In Ueland’s world, inspiration comes slowly and quietly; the creative impulse sees, feels, and hears its way into being only in the now.
In the early part of the 20th century, Brenda Ueland lived in New York City where she was part of the Greenwich Village bohemian set that include the anarchist, Emma Goldman, the playwright Eugene O’Neill as well as the journalist, John Reed and his lover, Louise Bryant whose story of life, love, and the pursuit of revolution was the basis for the 1981 romantic epic, “Reds,” directed by Warren Beatty who won an Oscar for his work. If You Want to Write definitely smacks of the influences from her time spent running with this crowd. “Small acts writ large change history!” she writes. Later, after her move to Minneapolis/St. Paul, egalitarian ideas from that heady time would find their way into her chosen work: teaching others to write.
For Ueland, the soul is the seat of much—intelligence, spirit, insight, understanding, personality, and imagination. In fact, she feels that the imagination is the divine in every one of us. She writes, “Give your work to some person or thing as you do it— the river, God, a dead person, your inner self.” When you are working this way according to Ueland, you are living a spiritual life.
Throughout, she holds up the creative genius and struggle of creative people diverse as William Blake, Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, and the Russians (including Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy) as exemplars of where and how we can make progress with our art.
Not surprisingly, Ueland is a proponent of free and reckless first drafts. She tells us to keep the pen moving—years before Natalie Goldberg would say much the same thing in Writing Down the Bones, her bestselling book on writing. That, in time, the words will reveal your true, honest self. For her, writing is talking, thinking on paper: the more impulsive and immediate, the closer to thinking. She urges us all to keep messy, honest diaries, to scribble in “slovenly freedom.” Only by doing all of these things will we coax into being the vitality, brilliance, and beauty our work craves and deserves. She reminds us to work from generosity, to “feel the fire” whenever we write. And to always seek to “be bold, free and truthful.” But no showing off! Ueland is, if nothing else, rabidly anti-glib.
And what happens when you keep writing new things, freely and generously, with careless truth? Then you will also know how to fix the pearl, to revise it to be good—no even better—in a short amount of time. And, in Brenda Ueland’s opinion, this whole process of writing becomes no work at all.
Something else you don’t hear much about in writing books (let alone life these days) is the necessity of idle time. Brenda Ueland is adamant that a writer must find time and space to sit quietly, to look and think and not “will” all the time. Those who espouse the “busy-ness as virtue” ethic of our too-much-information world will find her notions heretical. “Dare to be idle,” she writes, “not pressed and duty-driven all the time.” For Ueland, this is where the source of the slow, big ideas we want to bring into our work resides. And If You Want to Write is yet another writing book—like Stephen King’s On Writing—that sings the praises of a daily solo walk—not just for the sake of exercise but as a way to be in the present and allow room for new ideas to come.
Art is, after all, love and enthusiasm. Vincent Van Gogh spoke to this in a letter to his brother, Theo: “Devote one’s life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in beautiful, serious objects.”
Brenda Ueland isn’t embarrassed to say that God is pleased by the invention of the exalted and the beautiful. But when she talks about God it could just as easily be lowercase-g god, because it seems to me to be more about a divinity and a rapture that inhabits the world of creativity and art than a cast-in-concrete dogma or proselytizing to capture converts. For her, creative power is the Holy Ghost. And God is the same as Poetic Genius.
Everyone-as-writer, everyone as having something to say. In some ways, Brenda Ueland was seventy years ahead of her time now that we find ourselves in this Internet era with its ascendancy of web site, bloggers, and citizen journalists.
Her maxims are simple, direct, a bit old-fashioned, and, to my ear, oddly pure:
You have talent, are original, and have something important to say.
It is good to work. Work with love and like it when you do it.
It is a privilege to get to do this.
Be Bold, Be Free, Be Truthful.
If You Want to Write urges that we work from such generosity in every one of our fascinating searches for our writerly truths.