Author Interviews · Book Reviews · How Writers Write

Book Review: If You Want to Write: A Book About Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland

Hi all,

Recently I read a great book on the art of a formal book review. In order to try and practice this, I am giving a formal review for an excellent book I just finished reading:

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Graywolf Press, 179 Pages $8.45 paperback

In this concise, powerful nonfiction, Ueland discusses the nuances of what it is to be a writer. Rather than go over, as many writers have, the practical methods that can assist one in a writing career, Ueland strives to explore and pick apart the inner heart of a writer. She challenges the writing reader to question: What is the real, deep, inner reason behind my writing? Why am I writing the story I am currently writing, and what recesses of my soul is this story bringing out for the world to see? Is my writing genuine, or am I just writing what I think people will like? Do I let my creativity fly free as a bird, or do I cage it with rules and etiquette?

Ueland first pulls us in by using chapter titles that are very alive, such as “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write”, and quotes such as “Know that there is often hidden in us a dormant poet, always young and alive” [de Musset].

The second thing which stood out to me as I read this book was the mood of encouragement that Ueland has for the reader. Throughout the book, her voice is very friendly, personal, helpful and understanding. I felt as I read that Ueland was my teacher, but not just any teacher, but one of those fun ones that treats you like an equal – who earns your obedience by respecting you and wanting to help you shine, rather than just demanding it. Like this favorite-teacher type, Ueland constantly validates her writer reader, saying things to the effect of, “I believe in you. I want to see you succeed in the world.” This stood out to me because although other “how to write” books do want to teach you something, their approach is much more distant and clinical.

Like other writing books, Ueland shares her opinions and proven methods of what works for her for writing; she also gives examples of writing which embody the concepts she is presenting. Even here, though, Ueland does something different. She quotes from the letters of Van Gogh to prove various points. For example, Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother, “The world only concerns me so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures — not made to please a certain tendency in art, but to express sincere human feeling.”

Not only that, Ueland quotes anonymously from the writing of her students. She shares what writing she felt was forced, and what writing sang to her as honest, and therefore well done.

I think this is the main point of Ueland’s book: The best writing comes from expressing your truths about life sincerely. I would go so far as to say, I think Ueland’s idea is that the real point of writing is expressing one’s sincere feelings. To express the honest truths you have learned in your life will create good writing, Ueland argues. She is wholly against pandering to what is commercially popular, or writing just to sell. As a writer newer to publishing, this might have bothered me from another author, but Ueland was so genuine, sweet, and enthusiastic for the freedom and morale writing has to offer to writers; it struck me as true and good.

Ueland believes that not only is genuine, truthful writing what makes the best experience for the reader, but also that you can help yourself by writing your truth. To communicate something you honestly feel can change a reader’s life – and yours. I was convinced by Ueland’s personal mood. “Yes!” I wanted to shout at the end of reading. “I can write my truth! I can write what I really feel from deep in my heart! And it will be good, for me and for my readers!”

In case I have not explained it well enough, or my sentences were too long in my enthusiasm, I would like to share a quote from Ueland. This quote shows the main point she is trying to express in her book:

“A gifted young woman writes a poem. It is rejected. She does not write another for peraps two years, perhaps all her life. Think of the patience and love that a tap-dancer or vaudeville acrobat puts into his work. Think of how many times Kreisler has practiced trills…But here is an important thing: you must practice not perfunctorily, but with all your intelligence and love…A great musician once told me that one should never play a single note without hearing it, feeling that it is true, thinking it beautiful…Work freely and rollickingly as though talking to a friend who loves you…”

Here is where the trouble comes, though. How to do this thing? You might be thinking now, if you are a writer, “Yes, this is all great fun, but one can’t always write honestly. Writing requires drafts, and it’s just unrealistic to wait to write when you are really feeling it.”

Ueland faces this challenge, knowing her readers may be thinking it. She includes advice in her book for how to make the best environment for your writing to be the most genuine and best it can. Her suggestions include long walks, and times she calls “moodling”, where you don’t have anything to do and your mind can wander and create. These methods may or may not work for people. The one that I feel holds the most merit is in Ueland’s chapter called “Microscopic Truthfulness.”

In this chapter, Ueland says that to free yourself from the Inner Editor and the side that wants you to be popular in the book stores, which “cramps your style”, to use a modern term….what do you do? Write very truthfully about various topics, to help block out those editorial voices. She shares a short story that one of her students wrote about an old female servant. The student described everything about the servant, all pleasant and unpleasant details, from her hair upper lip to the annoying impression she gave off to guests.

Ultimately I have no real critique to give to Ueland’s work. I think that her book does what it intends to do – to encourage writers to be more flexible in their demands on themselves, and loosen up a little. I cannot say that I agree wholly with her argument until I have tried out her methods and suggestions for myself, and tried to go over to her more easy, positive way of thinking, rather than being strict to myself. I have the feeling though, that if I believe…I may get some results. Perhaps that’s cheesy, but…what’s to lose? Read Ueland’s book, and see if her ideas spark anything for you!

From Goodreads:

BRENDA UELAND

Born in Minneapolis, The United States October 24, 1891
Died March 05, 1985
Brenda Ueland was a journalist, editor, freelance writer, and teacher of writing. She is best known for her book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.

Ueland was born to Andreas and Clara Hampson Ueland; the third of seven children. She attended Wells and Barnard colleges and received her baccalaureate from Barnard in 1913. She lived in and around New York City for much of her adult life before returning to Minnesota in 1930.

Ueland was raised in a relatively progressive household; her father, an immigrant from Norway, was a prominent lawyer and judge. Her mother was a suffragette and served as the first president of the Minnesota League of Women Voters. Ueland would spend her life as a staunch feminist and is said to have lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.”

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