Review of If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland (Graywolf Press). The following is an imagined interview with Brenda Ueland (1891-1985), a writer and teacher, written by Carla Seaquist upon reading the above title, first published in 1938 and now republished:
Miss Ueland, T.S. Eliot said that writing in the 20th century is “a raid on the inarticulate.”
Writing is simply putting one’s thoughts on paper. That is all there is to it. I know what I say is true, because it is true to me and therefore I say it freely and you must have it.
You’re as emphatic as my English teacher Miss Saari, but she had the advantage of imparting codified Rules of Grammar (the exceptions to which gave her “the pip”—your term). But Rules of Writing? Are there any? Instead of manuals, the great writers send us bulletins from the front. You know, Eudora Welty’s “What we know about writing the novel is the novel.” Not that you provide rules so much as a set of cheers, itself very useful.
Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write!
But, your book lacks organization: You set out your ducks, promising “More later,” but don’t assemble them; chapter headings don’t always deliver; your summary introduces new material.
I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan it afterwards.
But what really sticks are your claims. Among other things, you promise the Nobel by noon!
I said “in ten years.”
B-b-but, you can’t say that! It undercuts your book’s good points.
“Writing is not a performance but a generosity.” Lovely. And: “Art must be truly felt and cannot be willed.” And Van Gogh’s idea of working from “very deep, serious affection.”
“Work freely and rollickingly as though…talking to a friend who loves you.” And: “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.” I also admire your exaltation of the Imagination, taking Blake’s “Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man” as scripture. And this: “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.”
Deflecting “fussy-mussy criticism”—I love it—and “that American pastime known as kidding,” from parents, older brothers (“the greatest sneerers of all”), teachers, husbands. And your advice to writing mothers.
Yes. If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say: “Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!” you would be surprised how they would respect you.
However, you skimp on the topic of acquiring a voice.
If you speak or write from yourself you cannot help being original.
Yes, well, that’s this century’s tough nut: locating the self, so often found to be mute or a ventriloquist. You devote just two paragraphs to it.
I myself seem to be so many different people, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, a murderer, a whiner, a mother, a simpering lady, an old rip, a minister, a burglar, a lion, a weasel.
Could you elaborate?
The only way to find your true self is by recklessness and freedom. If you feel like a murderer…write like one. “Violent Passions emit the Real, Good and Perfect Tones,” said Blake.
About Blake’s elevation of Enthusiasm over Reason: Not that you debunk Reason entirely, but I do think we could use more Reason these days.
“Mere Enthusiasm is the All in All,” said Blake. I must tell you this often.
Somebody told Ollie North often enough.
Sorry. About your biography: Miss Ueland, you’re a veritable exclamation point in an age of ellipses. Let’s see, daughter of feminists….
I was born with a birth defect: No herd instinct!
You lived in the Village in its bohemian days, during which time you introduced bobbed hair?
I can prove it. I told [the barber] to cut my hair all off…“like Lord Byron’s—as if a high wind were blowing from the rear.”
You had three husbands, a child, a hundred-plus affairs.
But never with a married man unless he brought a note from his wife.
You published essays, columns, an autobiography titled “Me” (whose tone is more questioning, less bromidic than “If You Want to Write”). In reading your work I sense that, for you, the life came first?
With the Greeks, I think the purpose of life…is “the tendence of the soul.”
Entailing, as discussed in your essay “On Making Choices,” formulating a “Life Conception.” Interesting: You say if Hamlet had done so….
The answer would have come immediately: Don’t kill Claudius. Or your mother. Be kinder to Ophelia. Don’t fake madness. Intelligently plan the overthrow of Claudius and establish a good administration.
The good life, then, over the good story, a priority I applaud. Your collected essays might be titled “If You Want to Live”. About story, though: Your book may not appeal to writers of “just” fiction (your modifier), as you don’t discuss character, narrator, point-of-view.
The only way to become a better writer is to become a better person.
You know what, Miss U.? Past the bombast, you’re really quite a boost.
You see I am so afraid you will decide that you are stupid and….
And you know what else?
The real value of books like yours is mixing it up in the margins with the author, right?
Precisely! Another gooseberry?
Carla Seaquist, who has published in The Christian Science Monitor, is working on a play and a novel.