Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write, A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit, copyrighted first in 1938, inspires the reader not only to be a better writer, but also a more complete person. She makes the bold claim that the best writers are good people, and then convincingly makes her case, quoting from writers who have inspired her, some famous like Blake, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, some not so famous but every bit as truthful (her students among them). Ueland believes there is ‘genius’ in us all — “everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”
After a long career as a writer, Ueland taught writing at the Minneapolis YWCA to a class of all ages and backgrounds. There she was able to help writers find the truth in their own writing. When students showed admiration for showy writing, she helped them see through it, encouraging them instead to write from a deep, heartfelt place. If one lives by the motto “be Bold, be Free, and be Truthful,” Ueland believes that anyone can write. Truthfulness, she says, will save the writer from “flamboyance and pretentiousness.”
If she weren’t able to write with such passion and tell such poignant stories of great artists and writers, you might brand her advice dreamy and impractical. But listen to her thoughts on Van Gogh from his letters on what his creative impulse was: “It was just this: he loved something —the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them.”
“… I hope to prove to you the importance of your working at writing, at some creative thing that you care about…only if I can make you feel that, will you do and persist in it… not only for the next few weeks! I want you to do it for years to come, all your life!”
Ueland writes these words in the chapter “Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man,” a quote from William Blake, the poet and artist. She revels in the joy with which Blake wrote and lived his life. He called his “Imagination” God. Only by doing what you love can you hope to experience this spirit (“the rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.”). I will not soon forget Blake’s way of discerning what is good or bad: “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” A shocking thought, but she and Blake agree that we too often listen to the critics and the nay-sayers instead of our own authentic voices.
Unlike Ueland’s book, most books on writing give what I call ‘write-by-the-numbers’ advice. They offer step-by-step procedures that call like sirens to the aspiring writer. If you follow the advice, you might well create a well-structured, readable book, but the chances are you will leave out the most important element of good writing: you.