Tuesday, October 4, 2016

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Published in 1938, still timely
Reading Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit recreated for me the experience of sitting in the classroom of a wise teacher. In my imagination she’s older, has a bit of extra weight, and is dressed appropriately for the 1930s (when this book was published), looking a bit of the stereotype of the schoolmarm. Well, that’s my imagination; in fact, this early 20th-century feminist, Barnard College graduate, and writer was not at all dowdy when she wrote this book.  (I think, because of similarities of tone and vocabulary, my image merged into that of Dorothy Sayers.) Ueland did, however, live an active life until her death at age 93!

But a mistaken image of Ms. Ueland’s appearance is not so great a mistake as thinking that this book is only for “Writers.” It’s not, it’s for writers, those who don’t (necessarily) earn their living by the pen or aspire to popular acclaim. Instead, it’s aimed at those who want to express themselves—amateurs, like me. Another mistake would be to assume that her work only applies to fiction writers, but good writing and the ingredients it requires, applies to all writing, even legal briefs! So whether you’re aiming for the New Yorker or just a post on Goodreads, this book will help guide and inspire you.

The first benefit of this book is that of a pep talk, and for her guidance, she relies primarily on the great English poet of the Imagination, William Blake. Blake, along with the painter Van Gogh, provide Ueland with statements about the Imagination that she commends to her readers. Blake, with support from other such as Plotinus and George Bernard Shaw, serve as inspirational guides. But the great Russians, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov are her models for writing compelling stories. All of this she shares with her readers with an infectious enthusiasm, as well she should if following the example of Blake. But while she encourages, she does not compel or prescribe. She respects the genius in each of us and advises writers that we cannot force the imagination. Diligence, yes; compulsion, no. So it’s not a cookbook or a guidebook, it’s an inspirational book with lots of models and insight about the process of writing.

Since this is a short book, I’ll keep my review short. But if you’re a writer, even a casual one, or an artist in any medium, this book can provide you with inspiration and guidance that will be well worth your time and which I anticipate that you will enjoy. 

Brenda Ueland undated photo
Dorothy Sayers undated photo
While these women don't look so much alike, both published in the 1930s, and both wrote about creativity and imagination and referred these qualities to the Holy Ghost.

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