You might want to consider this forgotten classic about the craft
‘’[T]his is the best book ever written about how to write!’’ Carl Sandburg
A young man approached me recently, saying he wanted to start writing. I read one of his pieces, saw potential, complimented him . . . then beat the living hell out of his piece.
His grammar was fine. The story flowed fairly well.
I beat on the story for its style, rewriting paragraphs and deleting cliched’ writing.
But what I really wanted to criticize was his approach.
I wanted to say, “This is fine and honestly shows a lot of potential, but it oozes prose that tells me you’re not really interested in the art of writing. You need to strip down to your underwear — to your attitude, your disposition, your entire writerly outlook — and start over.”
I couldn’t bring myself to say such a thing, primarily because I do think he has potential and didn’t trust my ability to convey such a heavy message without crushing him.
So instead I focused on the style issues.
And then sent him Barbara Ueland’s If You Want to Write.
Leisure, the basis of writing
I rarely see Ueland’s book referenced, but it has remained in print since its first publication in 1938 for a reason.
It is, as Sandburg noted, the best book ever about how to write, which is not terribly surprising. Ueland knew what she was writing about. She published over 6 million words in her lifetime.
Ueland believes in the importance of our ‘’thoughts, adventures, failures, rages, villainies and nobilities.’’
Her motto is ‘’be bold, be free, be truthful.”
She really hits that last one: truthfulness. Since reading this book 20 years ago, I have constantly asked myself when I write, “Do I really believe that? Do I really know that?”
Such caution can often hurt your writing by making it less bold, which is poison in this era of clickbait writing, but if you do it correctly, Ueland says, your writing will acquire a quiet boldness with a sincerity that readers will sense.
Ignore the negative
Ueland starts with something every new writer needs to hear: you are surrounded by negative people. “Families are great murderers of the creative impulse.” She particularly singles out husbands (she divorced three times) and older brothers for being sneering killers.
Instead of listening to the negative input of those closest to us, she counsels, we should listen to what she calls “the Holy Ghost.” Others merely call it the “creative power,” but Ueland is a big (big) William Blake fan, so she goes with a lot of Blakeian nomenclature and outlook.
Citing Blake’s observation that, when his energy was diverted from writing and drawing, “he was being devoured by jackals and hyenas,” Ueland tells us we need to write every day. It’s important to contact that Holy Ghost of creativity often.
But not because it’s productive or it’ll make a lot of money, but because it’s good for us. No time writing, she assures us, is wasted time. Writing for her is what prayer is to the saints.
Although she enthuses about writing, she understands it can be frustrating: people don’t appreciate your work; the effort is often slow and difficult. In a chapter entitled, “The Imagination Works Slowly and Quietly,” she says the writer needs a lot of downtime so the Holy Spirit of creativity has a place to work (her near-contemporary, G.K. Chesterton, said the exact same thing in his praise for idleness).
If you can’t get past your writer’s block, is there anything you can do than just stare into space?
But be sure to walk with no set purpose and definitely not with determination or for fitness. The walk should be alone, slow, meandering, and long (as long as 5–6 miles). A walk brings a person into contact with constantly-shifting scenery. The quiet effect on the writer is to shift her mental landscape, opening up new writing vistas.
The mindful writer
The book is in many ways an artistic adaptation of the Eastern practice of mindfulness (though, to my knowledge, Ueland, like most Americans in the 1930s, had never given Zen or Taoism much thought).
She counsels readers to live in the present moment, not to hurry, not to entertain negative or judgmental thoughts about yourself, to write with detachment, to eliminate striving (the Taoist principle of wu-wei), to focus only on the subject in front of you.
When a writer lives this way, the writing comes naturally because, in such a mindset, art unfolds without effort. I would be tempted to say that, when a writer lives that way, she comes in contact with the Tao, which then imparts direction to the writer.
When the direction comes, Ueland counsels, be sure to accept it by . . . writing: passionately, recklessly. Above all, write with zero thought to oneself, to what others might think . . . to anything except the page in front of you.
And above all, she counsels, be honest when you write. “Do not,” she warns, “try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are.”
So, don’t write for money?
The book, in short, is an exercise of humility: self-forgetfulness.
The artist forgets himself in the act of creating. The true artist isn’t concerned about money, or fame, or looking smarter than he really is. The true artist, Ueland insists, just creates. That’s all he is concerned about.
Now, I tend to agree with my hero, Samuel Johnson, who said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
Can Ueland and Johnson be reconciled?
I think so.
Ueland herself wrote for money and nowhere does Ueland suggest that the writer do nothing except write. She is very aware that writers need to eat and pay rent.
It’s just that those needs should be walled off during the creative process. The writer engages in the creative process for the sake of the art, just like a monk prays for the sake of contacting the Holy Ghost.
And then later the writer deals with the economics of writing, like a monk later goes about his chores in the monastery garden or kitchen.
It’s tricky, but so is life. Deal with it.
And Ueland’s book is a great place to start for dealing with it, even if (and here’s the real secret of the book) you have no interest in writing but merely want to live your life on a higher plane.
“It is when you are really living in the present — working, thinking, lost, absorbed in something you care about very much, that you are living spiritually.”
And when you live spiritually, your true self emerges and with it, everything else:
“But we must try to find our True Conscience, our True Self, the very Center, for this is the only first-rate choice-making center. Here lies all originality, talent, honor, truthfulness, courage and cheerfulness. Here lies the ability to choose the good and the grand, the true and the beautiful.”