1992-10-27: If You Want to Write

If You Want to Write (1938)

by Brenda Ueland (1891-1985)

By page 4 I had decided to make these notes as I went along, rather than try to recollect all the good bits after I finished reading the book.

On page xi she has the following paragraph:

In this book I tell how Tolstoy, one of the most interesting men who ever lived, explains that mystery of “interestingness” and how it passes from writer to reader. It is an infection. And it is immediate. The writer has a feeling and utters it from his true self. The reader reads it and is immediately infected. He has exactly the same feeling. This is the whole secret of enchantment, fascination.

This paragraph describes exactly what Dawkins is getting at in his idea of memes. Memes pass from brain to brain just as germs pass from body to body. And once they infect a brain, they organize it to generate more copies of themselves in other brains.

The Preface made me want to give this book to Chrissy and Susan and Carl and everyone who has felt the urge to write, paint or make music (that is everyone) and never followed it up.

On page 4 she says, “everybody who is human has something to express. Try not  expressing anything for twenty-four hours and see what happens. You will nearly burst.” Expression (in writing, drawing, gardening, dressmaking) for Ueland is the essence of humanness, and I think she is right.

On page 6 she says that people’s creative energy dries up because it is not encouraged. “To love someone is to listen to them, seeing and believing in the god, in the poet, within them. By listening you keep the god and the poet alive and make it flourish. The loving attitude is expressed thus: “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.”

Ueland quotes from Van Gogh’s letters, which opened her eyes to the creative impulse. “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. And that was all there was to it.” As she says, “the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse.” I imagine such a realization is like enlightenment, an opening of the inner eye to something that was always in front of you.

She says that imagination works slowly, and this is why solitude and time are necessary to the creative process. There must be freedom from distraction. This matches my feeling that we express the associations in our brains, and these form over time, from the simultaneous activation of related associations. Edison said, “Invention is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I think the perspiration he was talking about is the long process of forming enough associations, and enough structure among them, for the creative process to be able to produce the novel association, and for the internal critic or censor to recognize its novelty and fitness. For a writer this perspiration is the research or life experiences that eventually come together in prose or poetry, in front of the keyboard.

She quotes Saint-Beuve: “There exists in most men a poet who died young, whom the man survived.” The creative urge in every child dies if not exercised. And the more it is exercised, the stronger and more fluent it becomes, just like the muscles and nerves of an acrobat, juggler or musician.

She also draws a distinction between narrative, which lives in the past, recalling memory, and inspiration, which lives in the present. She proposes occasionally saying softly to oneself, “Now, now. What is happening to me now? This is now. What is coming into me now? this moment?” This makes you focus on the present, and on the minute details that make it luminous, rather than on the abstractions which make up most of our memory of the past few minutes.

A lot of this book is trying to get us to be free and truthful, expressing what we know and have seen, rather than what we think someone else might approve of. Her many anecdotes from her writing classes illustrate this. In writing your truth, you must find your own self, which of course is different every day. The writing is like exploring the twists and turns, or better the crossroads, in your own mind. These are the crossings of the connections between your meme-ories, where new ones form. If they are never found, they rot away; if they are found and used, and spread to someone else, you have participated in the essential human activity.

In chapter XII she quotes from Tolstoy’s essay called “What is Art?”, where he likened Art to infection. Tolstoy distinguished true art and pseudo-art. Pseudo-art is an imitation of art, made for the entertainment of bored rich people. This is the art which is not spontaneous but willed, and it is typically abstruse, subtle and hard to understand. This is the art which critics must praise, to assure the patrons that they are getting their money’s worth, because ordinary people can see at once that it is not from the heart. Another kind of pseudo-art is secondary, based on an infection you might have received from someone else’s art, and which you wish to pass on in your own work. But if you only received the inspiration at second-hand, you don’t have the primary associations with which to express it, and it will be obviously lifeless. To be true, you have to write about what you feel yourself. She uses as an instance, writing about boredom. Even something as uninteresting as boredom can be written about from personal experience, and be more convincing than an imagined, ideal sort of boredom.

She calls the impression of the writer’s personality behind the words The Third Dimension. The difference between good and bad writing is whether the writer’s personality shows through. This means writing what you feel, not what you want someone else to feel, or think you feel. Too much analysis obscures the feelings, and makes the writing bad.

She quotes from a letter of Chekhov, about the qualities of an educated person:

1.  They respect a man’s personality, and therefore are always tolerant, gentle, polite, yielding. … living with others they do not make a favor of it, and when leaving do not say, “It is impossible to live with you!” They excuse noise, and cold, and over-roasted meat, and witticisms, and the presence of other people in their house…

2.  They are compassionate, and not only with beggars and cats, for they grieve in their soul for what the naked eye does not see…

3.  They respect other people’s property and therefore they pay their debts.

4.  They are pure in heart and fear a lie as they fear fire. They do not lie, even in trifles.  A lie is humiliating to the listener, and it debases the speaker before his own eyes. They do not show off; they behave in public just as they behave at home; they do not throw dust in the eyes of humbler people, and do not make up soul-to-soul conversations when they are not asked. Out of respect for other people’s ears they are often silent.

5.  They do not belittle themselves to arouse the compassion of others. They do not play on the strings of other people’s souls so that they shall sigh over them. They do not say: “People do not understand me!” because all this produces a cheap effect; it is vulgar, musty, false.

6.  They are not vain-glorious. They do not care about such false diamonds as acquaintanceships with celebrities … Doing a farthing’s worth, they do not walk about with  their brief cases as if they had done a hundred rubles’ worth, and do not boast of being admitted where others are not admitted.

Chekhov sounds a great deal like a Taoist or Zen sage, though more verbose. From this we see his Third Dimension, even though he is not (overtly) writing about himself.

Ueland recommends keeping a daily diary, and not reading it for six months. After that time, much of it will be appalling, but some will show you truths about yourself that escaped your notice. (Frightening, isn’t it?)

In writing an article, where a linear constructive mode is needed, the weight of the end product can prevent getting it done (!), so she recommends just writing a thought, and the next, and so on. The words and organization are already in the mind, and will be better than you think. This doesn’t mean that it won’t need revision, but the free flow will contain important truths and insights that get buried by a constrained methodical chore. In my own work, I have seen this: the Memetic History flew out of my fingers, about 30,000 words. Then I wanted to make it more understandable and made an outline. I found I couldn’t find the places in the outline for much of what I had already written, so I have two unfinished versions. Perhaps the outline is too sluggish, trying to build a pyramid of logic for a bunch of ideas that are too loosely connected for that.

Chapter XVI suggests always imagining a reader or listener for a story. Every story is shaped by the listener as well as the teller, who edits, cuts, expands it for the listener, and tries to keep her interested. Any other approach is talking to oneself, and the Third Dimension shows to every reader that you are not interested in her.

She repeats Blake’s criticism of rationality, which stifles imagination.

The last chapter summarizes all the points she made through the book, and she says she thinks she may have advanced the Millenium by two or three hundred years. What an accomplishment!


In 1992, when I read Euland and wrote this report, I had been working on Marie and Claude for a couple of years, off and on (mostly off). I can’t say I had any of her advice explicitly in mind while I worked on it, but I hope some of her advice had made its way into my approach by 2009, when it was finished.

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