What makes writing “good”? In algebra, good math is accurate math; if we solved for the equation “x + 4 = 6,” for example, a good calculation would result in x = 2. In quantum physics, a good scientific theory would have sufficient evidence and be able to proved. But how do we evaluate the quality of something as subjective as writing? Does writing follow laws as immutable as those that govern the universe? Does good writing always prefer the energetic active voice to the lifeless passive? Does it use specific, concrete nouns and vigorous verbs? In grade school, we were assured writing could be calculated with the precision of a math problem and handed rubrics with different criteria during peer review. Did our partner use at least ten “academic” words (as if pretentious, highbrow words were better than simple, exact ones)? If so, they earned a shiny gold star.
In her lovely ode to art, beauty, and the soul-affirming act of unabashedly expressing yourself, If You Want to Write, the same volume that explained why art is a grand gesture of generosity and idleness is important to creativity, Brenda Ueland revolts against the spirit-sucking rules of too rigid English classrooms. Much like Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron, Ueland believes we write best when we feel free and unselfconscious, when we have permission to write recklessly. If we want to write well, we have to liberate ourselves from the padded walls of “ought’s,” “should’s” and “have-to’s”:
“Yes, you must feel when you write, free. You must disentangle all oughts. You must disconnect all shackles, weights, obligations, all duties. You can write as badly as you want to. You can write anything you want to— a six-act blank verse, symbolic tragedy or a vulgar short, short story. Just so that you write it with honesty and gusto, and do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are. What’s the use? You can never be smarter than you are. You try to be and everybody sees through it like glass, and on top of that knows you are lying and putting on airs. (Though remember this: while your writing can never be brighter, greater than you are, you can hide a shining personality and gift in a cloud of dry, timid writing.)
As you write, never let a lot of ‘oughts’ block you: I ought to be more humorous, more Leftist, more like Ernest Hemingway, more bitingly satirical. Then it shows. That spoils it. It will not be alive, but dead.”
What makes something art? Ueland agrees with Leo Tolstoy’s definition. In his landmark essay “What is Art,” Tolstoy asserts real art has the ability to transmit a feeling from artist to audience. Its distinguishing characteristic? The power to move. A great novel (or painting or film) can foster sympathy, stir us to action, incite us to anger; it can reacquaint us with beauty or simply remind us to marvel and wonder. If a work requires too much analyzing and dissecting, too much stuffy debate among academics in tweed suits, it’s not art. Real art is felt, not merely understood:
“Art is infection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. And the infection must be immediate or it isn’t art. If you have to puzzle timidly over a picture or a book, and try, try, to like it and read many erudite critics on the subject so that you can say at last, ‘Yes, I think I really do begin to understand it and see that it is just splendid! Real art!’ Then it is not Art.”
So how do we infect our readers? Our English teachers had us believe good writing was characterized by pomp and pretension; they encouraged us to use flowery, overdramatic language and craft elaborate rather than simple sentences. The result? Though it’s been many years since we’ve seen judgmental red ink on a midterm paper, we still write like little school girls trying to please teacher. Rather than choose the word that most precisely expresses what we’re trying to say, we diligently follow those strict rules of composition we learned long ago in grade school. We endlessly search the thesaurus for a grand word that will dazzle with its sophistication; we prefer longer obscure words to too “short,” too “simple” ones. But this only leads to bad art. Because, despite what our teachers told us, what separates good writing from bad writing is not word choice or syntax but truth. We can only infect our audience with an emotion if we genuinely felt it ourselves, if what we write is true. Reflecting on her students, Ueland writes:
“I saw in their own writing how whenever a sentence came from the true self and was felt, it was good, alive, it infected one no matter what the words were, no matter how ungrammatical or badly arranged they were. But when the sentence was not felt by the writer, it was dead. No infection.”
Ultimately, we should concern ourselves not with whether our writing is “good” but with whether it’s true. When we write what is true, when we put what we think and what we feel and what we see in the simplest terms, our writing sings with exuberance and truth. But when we write something because we think “this is how writing should sound” or because we convince ourselves “this is what our reader wants to hear,” our writing loses its vigor. Worse still, we compromise the trust of our readers. “She’s calling her boredom ‘agonizing’?” our readers scoff when they come across an overwrought bit of description, “I no longer believe her.” Ueland maintains we should never write for the validation of too stern English teachers— or anyone for that matter. As writers, our only allegiance is to our own truth:
“And so from now on, if you want to write, for example, about a man who is suffering from boredom, just quietly describe what your own feelings are when you have been bored. This is all you have to do. Don’t say the boredom was ‘agonizing. excruciating,’ unless your own boredom was, which is doubtful.
That is all you have to do to infect, to convince your reader, to make him think it is a good description, because it seems true.”
For more of Brenda Ueland’s stirring meditations on writing and the writing life, delight in the qualities of good writing and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine. Hungry for more soul-nourishing writing advice? Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut.