It’s possible that you’ve never heard of Brenda Ueland. I know I hadn’t until I picked up a copy of her book, If You Want To Write. It was one of the two books Brenda wrote in her lifetime, the other being an autobiography. The Wikipedia page for Brenda Ueland is sparse, her Graywolf Press author page says: “She lived by two rules: to tell the truth, and not to do anything she didn’t want to do. She died in 1985 at the age of 93.”
So now you know about as much as I know about her. But let me tell you something about Ueland’s book. If You Want To Write is incredibly inspiring and one of the better books on writing that I’ve ever read, which seems even more impressive when you consider that it was written in 1938. There’s a lot of good advice in the book and it’s worth reading it from front to back, but here are a few examples of Brenda Ueland’s wisdom that stood out to me.
On the intrinsic reward to writing.
“I want to assure you with all earnestness that no writing is a waste of time – no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. I know that. Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep writing.”
On how to tell a story.
“…think of telling a story, not of writing it. When you tell a story then you have the instinctive sense of timing in it, of going into detail where it is important, of moving fast over the surface of the story where that is necessary.”
On writing what you feel.
“…there is no sense in writing anything I don’t feel; or working up a lot of bogus feelings, because nobody will be one bit impressed or affected. But, as I told the people in my class, you must not think of a feeling as necessarily a violent and terrific thing – “harsh, dry sobs,” and so on. Boredom is a feeling, lassitude is a feeling, sleepiness is a feeling as well as rage. And so from now on, if you want to write, for example, about a man who is suffering from boredom, just quietly describe what your own feelings are when you have been bored. This is all you have to do. Don’t say the boredom was “agonizing, excruciating,” unless your own boredom was, which is doubtful. That is all you have to do to infect, to convince your reader, to make him think it is a good description, because it seems true.”
On writing without a plan.
“I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan 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.”