If You Want to Write is a book I love to go back to. I like the author, Brenda Ueland, because she genuinely encourages you to write. She doesn’t tell you how to write dialogue, construct a plot or create a character. First published in 1938, the book doesn’t go into technical details at all. Instead, you are encouraged to find your voice, be true to yourself, and write honestly and freely.
Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say, writes Ueland. When we try to write, however, we become anxious, timid, perfectionists. As a result, we write blandly or not at all. “When you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free,” she says.
Is that all there is to writing? Is it so simple as that? Hold on! You must love to write to be any good at it for like anything else it needs practice.
Ueland doesn’t tell you much about how to write but makes you want to write. That’s the best thing about the book. Ueland, who taught writing, tells stories about her students — who included housewives, stenographers, farmers, young men – and quotes from the stories they wrote. The result is a story, too, a narrative about people who want to write and, encouraged by their teacher (Ueland), come out of their shell and write vividly about the life they know.
That is what makes the book so heart-warming. The poet Carl Sandburg declared it was “the best book ever written about how to write”. Ueland and he happened to be friends. But, reading this book, you do get the impression that Ueland, who lived to the age of 93, was a remarkable woman. Wikipedia says she married thrice and had many lovers.
I am certainly drawn to her as a reader. She writes simply, but she sounds generous and kind, and is obviously writing from experience, so you trust her to know what she is talking about and are carried along by her narrative.
Keep a diary, she says like many other writing coaches. “Keep A Slovenly, Headlong, Impulsive, Honest Diary”. That’s the title of one of the chapters in the book. Write every day or as often you can, as fast and carelessly as you can. Don’t read what you have written. Wait for six months. Then you will find “vitality, brilliance and beauty” in what you have written so freely, she says.
She has kept such a diary for many years, says Ueland, adding: “It has shown me that writing is talking, thinking, on paper… It has made me like writing… It has shown me more and more what I am – what to discard in myself and what to respect and love.”
“Another reason for writing a diary is to discover that the ideas in you are an inexhaustible fountain,” she says.
Besides keeping a diary, we can do something else to be better writers. Write with an imaginary reader or listener in mind. It helps often to have an imaginary listener when you are writing, says Ueland: “You have to hold your audience to the very end.”
All the great literature in the world was “creatively affected and moulded by the fact that there were listeners”, she says. Yes, the great epics had their listeners — and the books that followed, their readers. No book is published without a reader in mind.
Art, literature, music is a sharing, says Ueland. You cannot, she adds, “write a long, long book, four-fifths full of your own psychological writhings… Who cares?”
How do you go from keeping a diary to writing a book? Ueland doesn’t address that. She seems to believe that once you start writing freely, true to yourself, and find your inner voice, things will fall into place.
“I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it,” she says. “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. I don’t mean that it will be successful. It may be alive to only ten people. But to those ten at least it will be alive. It will speak to them. It will help to free them.”
Freedom, spontaneity – these are what she values. Her enthusiasm is infectious. I just wrote an appreciation!