Book Review: If You Want to Write
June 17, 2021
book cover

If You Want to Write

By

Brenda Ueland

For a writer, reading books for the pleasure of reading and reading books about writing are two different things.

The former is a way of slipping into words and worlds created by someone else, like a stroll through a museum filled with beautiful objects that generate admiration and respect while conveying a lesson or two about how to create a work of art. 

The latter is akin to a textbook, a tool to improve craft whose objective is primarily to instruct.

Brenda Uelend’s If You Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit is a book that does much more than serve as an instruction manual for writing. It is an indispensable guide for life. 

Definition of a classic

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word classic in several ways, using words like traditional, enduring, memorable, standard of excellence, authentic, authoritative and others –  words typically associated with things like design, places or events of historical and literary value. 

If You Want to Write was first published in 1938, and after having gone through several reprints, certainly meets the definition of ‘classic’. I came across this book a few months ago but was unable to do justice to it then. 

When it circled back into my consciousness this time, I knew it was exactly what I needed. It was the perfect antidote to a long to-do list and an inbox filled with emails emphasizing productivity. It seemed unbelievable that her words held true even today.

Although Ueland’s book is ostensibly about writing, she clarifies early on that “whenever I say ‘writing’ in this book, I also mean anything that you love and want to do or make”. 

If you don’t have time to read the book, here are ten lessons that are relevant to all kinds of creators.

Ten lessons for writing (and life) 

1. If you have doubts about your creative talents, welcome to the club. Even before we write the first sentence, the impostor syndrome takes over. It is easy to hide behind syndromes and procrastinate but Ueland’s unequivocal claim diffuses the mountain of doubt with a simple sentence. 

Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express

 Isn’t it easier to have this belief as the primary foundation for a creative life? 

2. Contrary to the avalanche of emails touting tools, techniques and hacks to increase my productivity, Ueland encourages ‘moodling’. I fell in love with this word because it lets me just ‘be’. A slow solitary walk, solving a Sudoku grid, or a quiet evening spent sitting by the pool – these may not contribute to my daily output, but they certainly add value to my creativity. 

The imagination needs moodling,—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. For what we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing

3. Ueland mentions the slow pace at which ideas come. In a world of instant gratification, this seems painful, torturous even. The only way is to get out of the way and allow ideas to arise. From my own experience with writing my memoir for the past six months,  by dedicating myself to writing for an hour every morning, I learned that daily discipline primes the pump of creativity and allows my words to flow smoothly without exertion or distress.

Inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness

4. Being afraid of writing badly can stop the creative process at the first step. In her kind way, Ueland grants us permission to write badly, to be boring and dull. Her approach reminded me of the principle of ‘paradoxical intention’ that is practised in logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Viktor. E. Frankl. All writers and writing teachers encourage ‘shitty first drafts’, a great (and sometimes only) way of putting words on paper.

See how bad a story you can write. See how dull you can be. Go ahead. That would be fun and interesting. I will give you ten dollars if you can write something thoroughly dull from beginning to end

5. If you are a woman, a mother, a person who spends most of her time attending to the needs of others, Ueland’s words will prod you into action. I have often struggled to make time for my writing and other interests amidst the demands of daily life. I have also wanted to be an inspiring role model for my kids. In Ueland’s words, I found a kind mentor who knew exactly what I needed to hear. 

For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise a husband or children or friends, you have to be something yourself. And how to be something yourself? Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important. So if you want your children to be musicians, then work at music yourself, seriously and with all your intelligence. If you want them to be scholars, study hard yourself. If you want them to be honest, be honest yourself. And so it goes

6. During a conversation on a recent podcast, I discovered that for years I had been looking to books as my go-to resource for answers.However, when I began writing, I found that I was able to better understand my world through the process of writing. Was I understanding the word better or myself better? From Ueland’s experience I could see how the two were connected. While it seems we are writing about the outer, we get adept at understanding our inner world better. 

Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self

7. As a writer of personal essays, I often wonder if what I write is just self-serving navel-gazing. When I look inwards, I find so many tangled strands that I try to unravel with my words. Sometimes it is easy to find a path, at other times, I have to revisit it again and again, to get to the root of understanding. I know that there is a universal lesson in there somewhere, hidden amidst the details. How do I get to the heart of what I really want to say? Here I found Ueland’s advice to be spot on.

The more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular

8. There has been so much debate lately on the topic of ‘art vs artist’. Ueland addresses this topic by revisiting her premise that the act of writing allows the writer to understand themselves better. What they find may not be pretty or pleasant, but observing ourselves is the first step towards improving ourselves. 

And that is why I have come to think that the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person

9. The best part about the book is its conversational tone throughout. It’s as if I was sitting across from the author and she was describing the writer’s life lightly, humorously, without any sense of self-importance or solemn seriousness. She read parts of her students’ writings, quoted from Tolstoy and Blake, made her points casually and moved on to the next thing. What she accomplished through that is what good teachers do naturally – convey the lesson with ease. I hope that I am able to hold the attention of my readers following her simple wisdom.

Do that when writing. You have to hold your audience in writing to the very end—much more than in talking, when people have to be polite and listen to you

10. Through life, and through writing, we seek to uncover our subjective truth. Living in fear that it may not resonate with readers or that people may disagree with you (or troll you or cancel you) stops us from doing what we must do, understand ourselves. Will today’s epiphany seem hollow when seen through the lens of hindsight? It’s natural to have such doubts because life is not static, just as it changes, so does our understanding. In her gentle manner, Ueland encourages us to discover our truth without worrying.

If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take its place later. What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth

Of all the inspiring words that spill out of this gem of a book, the one quote that I will always remember is this –

“Life is more important than literature”.

My opinion: If you can afford to buy only one book on writing, buy If You Want to Write and refer to it repeatedly for support, solace and encouragement. I did.

Do you read books about writing? Which one is your favorite? 

Photo credit: Ranjani Rao‘s personal archives

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