Be Awkward, Quick, Insolent: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

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If You Want to Write - Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, written in 1938, is a precursor generally to the various books on the writing craft which I love so much and more specifically to The Artist’s Way (which I wrote about here). The three central messages of the two books are the same. Anyone can be an artist. Everyone has heaps of creativity inside them and probably need help to get access to it. And the only way to make real art is to find your true self, be kind to it, and tell the truth.

Unless you’re prepared for a fully loaded dose of affirmation, inspiration, optimistic encouragement, earnestness, and repetition, proceed with caution! If that doesn’t scare you, watch out for the old-fashioned conversational tone and slightly odd punctuation and grammar. Writers of the present century, aspiring or otherwise, are more likely to enjoy contemporary books on the writing craft.

Even aside from all of that, it might have been a bit much for me to read If You Want to Write so soon after finishing The Artist’s Way. Like Julia Cameron’s book, If You Want to Write is more about discovering that you can write, even if you think you can’t or aren’t good. The focus is on working toward becoming what you might call good, whatever that may be for you. It’s not about crafting beautiful sentences or a compelling plot or engaging characters. It’s about finding the thing inside of you that you want to write and getting it out on the page in an honest and truthful way. Reading two similar books about this so close together has pushed me to a saturation point.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some nuggets of insight to be found. Here are some of my favourite parts.

Being careless

Before Julia Cameron came along, Brenda Ueland had her own version of the morning pages:

“Write every day, or as often as you possibly can, as fast and carelessly as you possibly can, without reading it again, anything you happened to have though, seen or felt the day before. In six months look at it. A drawer full of paper will have accumulated. You will see that what you have written with the most slovenly freedom — in those parts there will be vitality, brilliance, beauty. By being careless, by taking it off on paper as fast as you can, you will not write what is dutiful and boring to you. You will not lumberingly over-explain, as they all do in political speeches and articles on economics. You will go straight to the point— be awkward, quick, insolent. Oh, this over-explaining! It is the secret of all boredom.”

I also like this advice about writing as though you will throw away what you create: “I don’t think we trust our imaginations enough, use them rightly. Self-trust is so important. When you launch on a story, make your neck loose, feel free, good-natured. And be lazy. Feel that you are going to throw it away. Try writing utterly unplanned stories and see what comes out.”

All should work

“Everybody in the world has the same conviction of inner importance, fire, or the god within,” she writes.

“The tragedy is that either they stifle their fire by not believing in it and using it; or they try to prove to the world and themselves that they have it, not inwardly and greatly, but externally and egotistically, by some second-rate thing like money or power or more publicity. Therefore all should work. First because it is impossible that you have no creative gift. Second: the only way to make it live and increase is to use it. Third: you cannot be sure that it is not a great gift.” 

Personality and the true self

A lot of what Ueland has to say about writing is about finding your true self and writing from there, not putting on a character or trying to be someone you’re not. But how, she asks, “to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves?” Her answer:

“The only way to find yourself is by recklessness and freedom. If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one. In fact, when you are in a fury it is a wonderful time to write. It will be brilliant — provided you write about what you are furious at, and not some dutiful literary bilge.

Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.” 

Learning about yourself is what gives your writing that coveted personality:

“The personality behind the writing is so important. This is what I call the Third Dimension. On the paper there are all the neatly written words and sentences. It may be completely objects, with ‘I’ not written there once. But behind the words and sentences, there is this deep, important, moving thing — the personality of the writer. And whatever that personality is, it will shine through the writing and make it noble or great, or touching or cold … or supercilious or whatever the writer is.”

Planning before writing

A friend asks Ueland if she has planned the book and made an outline. She vehemently answers in the negative. “For when you begin to plan such a huge edifice of words,” she writes, “your heart fails you. It is too hard, it will never get done, it is too complex and frightful. No, write what comes to you now. More will come later. The river will begin to flow through you.”

I’m not sure this is useful advice for all writers. Sometimes it helps to know the big picture before you begin to write each chapter. Many writers are very capable of dealing with an ambitious work. There’s no need to tell them that it should seem difficult if they don’t actually feel that way.

It’s obvious from this book that Ueland followed this advice while writing it. Each chapter is a thing by itself, without much sense of a cohesive whole, and there is a lot of repetition and even some contradiction. It’s still readable, but a little haphazard. If You Want to Write itself isn’t a strong argument for not planning before you start writing.

“No, I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan it afterwards. You write it first because every word must come out with freedom, and with meaning because you think it is so and want to tell it. If this is done the book will be alive.” 

This advice is useful for starting with an exploratory first draft. But it’s not going to help people who already have an idea of what their book is about but need to do the work to figure out how to put it together. Planning is helpful for avoiding that scramble in the dark every time you sit down to write.

But it’s equally true that if you don’t know what you’re writing and how you’re going to start, outlining and planning isn’t really going to get you anywhere. Sometimes you just have to stop making excuses, stop living inside the hazy world of your grand ideas, stop pretending that one day the story is going to write itself. Sometimes you just need to get down to the work.

The way to make it better

Although so much of the book is about finding your inner artist and facing the fear that you can’t write, If You Want to Write also has some excellent concrete advice about writing.

How to get better: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad, mawkish stories for that will show you many things about yourself, and your eye and taste and what you really feel and care about will become clearer to you. If you write a bad story, the way to make it better is to write three more. Then look at the first one. You will have grown in understanding, in honesty. You will know what to do to it. And to yourself.”

How to revise a story: “When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to write it over again and make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words. Try to see the people better. It is not yet deeply enough imagined. See them — just what they did and how they looked and felt. Then write it. If you can at last see it clearly the writing is easy.”

How to be interesting: “The secret of being interesting is to move along as fast as the mind of the reader (or listener) can take it in. Both must march along in the same tempo. That is why it is good to read your writing aloud to yourself. As soon as your voice drags, cross that part out.”

Related

There is another book about writing with a lot of similarities to If You Want to Write that came out just a few years before, in 1934: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (available as a PDF), which I first heard about via Writing about Writing. Here’s a preview:

“There is a sort of writer’s magic. There is a procedure which many an author has come upon by happy accident or has worked out for himself which can, in part, be taught. To be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way, first considering the main difficulties which you will meet, then embarking on simple, but stringently self-enforced exercises to overcome those difficulties. Last of all you must have faith, or the curiosity, to take one odd piece of advice which will be unlike any of the exhortations that have come your way in classrooms or in textbooks.”

If You Want to Write, Here’s the Book for You at Literary Hub.
Brenda Ueland at Wikipedia.
Buy the book directly from Graywolf Press.

How Writing Has Been Going Lately

I wrote the first drafts of two novels last year. I wrote them quickly — the first in three and a half months at around 800 words a day, and the second in less than two months at about 950 words a day. I started the draft of a third novel in early December. I expected it to come out as quickly as the other two, but so far it hasn’t. 

Writing lately

Writing lately has been slow. I try to work on it every day, and sometimes I fail. My average pace is somewhere around 200 words a day, and I’m nowhere close to the end of the story. There are many days where I’ve written nothing at all and other days where 300 words feels like a feat of incredible strength. It’s been months since I’ve written several hundred or a thousand words in one session.

That sounds like a lot, but on a day like that, the majority of the words are terrible. The volume is important, though. The point is getting inside the writing, moving forward, thinking of new ideas while in the thick of it, not from the outside. In the middle of a thought about something else finding insight into what is really going on in a scene. There need to be a lot of words because it’s often only at the end of a long stretch of sentences that something good or useful emerges.

Most mornings I type up a few sentences and call it progress. I feel lucky if I manage more than one paragraph. Sometimes that tiny beginning turns into something bigger and I get a few hundred words down in a morning, but most of the time it’s just words that reiterate something I’ve already written, that add a silly thought on top of another silly thought, that carry on a conversation with nothing in it. I don’t feel like it counts as progress.

Shifting form

Part of my problem with writing lately is that the story doesn’t even feel like a novel anymore. Somewhere along the way, the part I’m working on turned into a short story. Part of me wants to continue the novel, while another part wants to cut out this piece and work it into a thing that stands on its own. 

I’m meandering on the outskirts of the story, looking backward at what I’ve already written, wishing I could make something of that, rather than continuing to move ahead. But having begun a novel that shows signs of going somewhere, I am compelled to continue it. Yet having a vision in my head of a short story, I am compelled to consider what it would mean to have a short story finished, done, without having to commit to an entire novel yet again.

A novel is fundamentally different from a short story. I can’t hold them both in my head at once. I’m finding it impossible to have it both ways. So I creep cautiously along, barely making any headway. And I keep thinking: what if it were a short story, something I could submit somewhere for publication on its own?

Writing lately

One step at a time

It feels so important, the piece of fiction you choose to be the first thing you send out into the world with your name attached to it. So I’m trying not to think about it. There are no limits to the kind of writer I can imagine myself being. I have not chosen a voice, a genre, a geography, a set of themes, a primary concern. Those choices shouldn’t be important. I feel nearly as likely to publish a contemporary romance novel as a book of prose poetry or an obscure literary novel or a self-help book. And with thinking about what I want to try to get published first, I feel like I have to choose. It’s a decision I don’t want to make. Is that why I’ve been slowing down?

After all the first drafts I’ve been writing lately, I really just want to finish something that I can put in front of other people. I don’t know what will happen after that, but that’s the first step. I have a sentence-generating itch in my fingers that won’t go away, not even on those zero-sentence mornings. The inevitable feelings of inadequacy and frustration and fear should make me want to quit. Instead they’re the motivators for continuing to work at it until I make something that I can maybe, if I squint and tilt my head and not think too hard, be proud of.

New Life in the Void: Poet Lu Ji on the Art of Writing

Lu Ji was a prolific writer in early China (261-303) whose best known work is The Art of Writing (originally Wen Fu, also translated as Essay on Literature), an essay of literary criticism composed of both poetry and prose.

But calling it literary criticism doesn’t do it justice. It’s a collection of eleven poems on what it means to write, to read, and to put your faith in the power of the written word, whether by long-gone ancestors or future generations. 

Chinese text of The Art of Writing by Lu Ji

Excerpt from the Chinese text of Wen Fu (Source)

Lu writes in the preface: “Through my own efforts I know how hard it is to write, since I always worry that my ideas fail to express their subject and my words are even further removed from their insufficient ideas. The problem is easy to understand; the solution is more difficult.” I don’t think Lu finds the solution (has anyone?), but he faces the difficulty and seeks out answers in these eleven poems.

The Impulse

In “The Impulse,” reading the classics inspires the poet to write. It begins with a beautiful description of the poet’s position:

A poet stands between heaven and earth
And watches the dark mystery.

And continues with the source of his inspiration:

I roam the classics through a forest of treasures
And love their elegant balance of style and substance.
Inspired, I lay down the book I was reading
And let words pour out from my brush.

Meditation

A wonderfully metaphysical description of what it’s like to write something that feels as though it’s been waiting for you to find the words: 

Sometimes words come hard, they resist me
till I pluck them from deep water like hooked fish;
sometimes they are birds soaring out of a cloud
that fall right into place, shot with arrows,
and I harvest lines neglected for a hundred generations,
rhymes underheard for a thousand years.
I won’t touch a flower already in morning bloom
but quicken the unopened evening buds.
In a blink I see today and the past,
put out my hand and touch all the seas.

Process

On continuing to work at it even when you may not feel like you’re making progress: 

Some words belong together
and other don’t join, like jagged teeth,
but when you’re clear and calm
your spirit finds true words.
With heaven and earth contained in your head
Nothing escapes the pen in your hand.

It’s hard to get started at first,
painful like talking with cracked lips,
but words will flow with ink in the end.

The Joy of Words

On the beauty of being able to create something from nothing:

A writer makes new life in the void,
knocks on silence to make a sound,
binds space and time on a sheet of silk
and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.

You can read the whole of “The Joy of Words” on Instagram here.

Inspiration

The poem “Inspiration” is about the “traffic laws on writing’s path,” describing what it is like to be possessed with the urge to write and the knowledge, for once, of what to write about:

When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back:
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush,
that colors brim out of your eyes
and music echoes in your ears.

Writer’s Block

Lu describes that dreaded condition as when “the will travels but the spirit stays put.” His solution?

You must excavate your own soul,
search yourself until your spirit is refreshed.

It’s not so easy, however:

The mind gets darker and darker
and you must pull ideas like silk from their cocoon.

But perhaps the work will pay off:

Sometimes you labor hard and build regrets 
then dash off a flawless gem.

That impossible flawless gem! But the appearance of the gem, never mind the defeat of writer’s block, is inexplicable:

Though this thing comes out of me,
I can’t master it with strength.
I often stroke my empty chest and sigh:
what blocks and what opens this road?

The Power of a Poem

In the last poem of the essay, Lu takes the long view, looking behind him at the work of his ancestors and looking ahead to the work of those who were and are still to come, and showing his faith in what literature can accomplish.

The function of literature is
to express the nature of nature.
It can’t be barred as it travels space
and boats across one hundred million years.
Gazing to the fore, I leave models for people to come;
looking aft, I learn from my ancestors.
It can save teetering governments and weak armies;
it gives voice to the dying wind of human virtue.
No matter how far, this road will take you there;
it will express the subtlest point.
It waters the heart like clouds and rain,
and shifts form like a changeable spirit.
Inscribed on metal and stone, it spreads virtue.
Flowing with pipes and strings, each day the poem is new.

The Anchor of Chinese PoetryI found The Art of Writing in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, but many other translations exist, some of which you can read herehere, and here.

The editors of The Anchor Book note how complex the work is to translate and how many multiple meanings are possible in each line, such that the notes on the translation would far exceed the length of the piece itself.

Yet the essence of the work shines through in its multiple translations. Although written some seventeen hundred years ago, The Art of Writing still speaks to us today. The joy and pain, the dullness and ecstasy of writing haven’t changed, not across centuries or cultures.

More Interesting than Everyday Life: On the Writing Day (Part 2)

Last week I posted quotes from five authors on the details of their writing day. Today I bring you six more insights into the fascinating everyday life of the published author.

As of Friday I’m off work for the holidays, so it’s an ideal time to knuckle down for at least a couple of days of serious writing and editing. Unlike Alain de Botton, I don’t write at the office, so I’m looking forward to being at home for days on end. I’m not sure I’ll accumulate enough stop-start writing days to earn a flow day, to use Hilary Mantel’s nomenclature, but I’m going to try. I don’t plan to wait for the desire to write, as Patti Yumi Cottrell does, but I do count on floundering and blushing at least as much as Sebastian Barry might.

Galway

Hilary Mantel

On the start of her writing day:

“I get up in the dark like a medieval monk, commit unmediated scribble to a notebook, and go back to bed about six, hoping to sleep for another two hours and to wake slowly and in silence. Random noise, voices in other rooms, get me off to a savage, disorderly start, but if I am left in peace to reach for a pen, I feel through my fingertips what sort of day it is.”

On flow days:

“Days of easy flow generate thousands of words across half a dozen projects – and perhaps new projects. Flow is like a mad party – it goes on till all hours and somebody must clear up afterwards. Stop-start days are not always shorter, are self-conscious and anxiety-ridden, and later turn out to have been productive and useful. I judge in retrospect. On flow days, I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back. It’s a life with shocks built in.”

Patti Yumi Cottrell

The author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace in an interview at The Creative Independent, on not writing every day:

“I have to feel a desire to write. I don’t know if there’s ever an end goal in mind. But I just have to feel like I really want to do it. I have to feel borderline desperate. And then I want to write. That’s what motivates me. Going long periods without writing, where I’m just doing other things, helps create that feeling of wanting to write.”

On surprising yourself while you’re writing:

“It just feels like an ecstatic and magical thing. You didn’t realize something could happen and then you make that happen. It feels clarifying in a way, because it’s like something was there all along but you didn’t know it. And then you’re surprised by it. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself through writing.”

Deborah Levy

The author of the excellent novel Hot Milk writes in a shed she rents from a friend. She plans her routes, follow directions, but still gets lost:

“When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.”

On getting to the end:

“As far as I’m concerned, the writing life is mostly about stamina and the desire to give my complete attention to language. … To get to the finishing line requires the writing to become more interesting than everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I have never found everyday life boring.”

Sebastian Barry

On ideal writing days: “Those ideal days begin when I have managed to survive that awful waiting period with a novel when you are writing, but also crossing out crossly, beginning again, floundering, panicking, blushing in the privacy of your workroom.”

On getting down that first good line:

“But the gods maybe have pity at last on the poor author sequestered there, struggling with his book, and eventually a serviceable first line is rendered from the heavens. The whistle-tune, the birdsong of the book. The relief is immense, and that strange and uncharacteristic courage to proceed descends.”

Alain de Botton

On writing in an office environment:

“I act almost normally, from the outside, clicking away at the keyboard. Even though I may inside be tempted by all kinds of emotions, I handle myself with calm and reserve – which is not the limitation it may sound. It can be the greatest freedom, sometimes, to have to repress some of what you are. I sit quietly for hours. I’ll have a sandwich at the desk. I can’t sink into despair, scream or act all poetic: other people are watching. At the office, there’s a chance to edit yourself, thankfully. That’s why I go there.”

On the gap between who you are and the work you do:

“My writing ends up sounding quite different to the way I feel inside. That’s the point. It tries to understand, to be serene, to be competent. Perhaps this ability to have a gap between who you are and what your work is like doesn’t just hold true for art: it’s something all work offers. … Work gives us a chance to give our better natures a go.

“It’s great to make things tidy via work. The wider world will always be a mess. But around work, you can sometimes have a radically different kind of experience: you can get on top of a problem and finally resolve it. You can bring order to chaos for a bit.”

Elizabeth Strout

The author of Olive Kitteridge can write anywhere, but her favourite place to write is at home.

“These days I write first thing in the morning after having breakfast with my husband; my writing day starts as soon as he leaves the apartment, which is usually right after breakfast. Then I clear the table and sit down to work. I write mostly by hand, transcribing it on a computer when I can no longer read my writing, when I have made too many marks on the paper to be able to see the scene I am trying to write.”

On writing scenes separately and then piecing them together:

“I am a very messy worker – I push these scenes around our table. It is a big table, and over time I realise which scenes are connected. I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I just collect different scenes, and the ones that aren’t any good to me, get slipped on to the floor and eventually into the wastebasket. (There are many of those.)”

And more

For much more minutiae on the lives of writers, I suggest Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, The Paris Review Interviews Volumes I and II, Writing Routines, and The Guardian’s “My writing day” series (which supplied quotes for some of this post). And in case you missed it, check out part one!