Why do we write? In answer to this perennial question, poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied, “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave my mark on the world.” “I write,” Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan maintained, “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.” Novelist Jane Smiley responded she wrote “to investigate things she was curious about” while James Frey, screenwriter and memoirist behind the controversial A Million Little Pieces, wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.” In her landmark essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion confessed writing was a process of discovery: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear,” she observed in characteristically clear-eyed prose.
In her soul-stirring celebration of art, independence and the human spirit, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland examines why great artists throughout time have bothered to paint landscapes and compose poems. In one of the volume’s loveliest chapters “Why a Renaissance Nobleman Wrote Sonnets,” she suggests writers write to better understand themselves and the world:
“One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the noblemen knew and understood his own feeling better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the Italian or English language was.”
Why do artists scribble in notebooks and paint at easels? Some create to attain a lofty goal: to revolutionize modern thought, say, or to change the world. For others, art is an act of ego. You know the type: the young and status-obsessed who dream of seeing their byline in the sophisticated typeface of the New Yorker. At writing retreats, they only have one concern: will my work sell? Rather than dedicate themselves to the noble quest of expressing what is beautiful and true and good—in other words, the work— they busy themselves with the economics of the work: is it marketable? does it deal with a timely topic? is it written in a hip, of-the-moment style? These writers care about things like Oprah’s book club selections and best seller lists and book sales. Their drive to create originates from the ego: they want to immortalize their name in the canon of English letters; they want awards and acclaim, prestige and a Pulitzer.
However for some, art is a selfless act of service— a way to offer others consolation and comfort. The visionary Vincent Van Gogh belonged to this latter class of creator. He didn’t paint irises and night skies to put a stop to global warming or end racism, nor did he paint to achieve any sort of worldly success (after all, despite his talent, he died by his own hand penniless and unknown). He painted red poppy fields and farmhouses in Provence just because he thought they were beautiful and worth sharing with people:
“If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was. It was just this: he loved something the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them. And that was all there was to it.
When Van Gogh was a young man in his early twenties, he was in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lamppost, a star, and he said something in his letter like this: “It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks.” And then on his cheap ruled note paper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it.”
What, exactly, qualifies as “art”? Who earns the distinguished title of “artist”? Is art always contained in the dimensions of 4-by-4 picture frames and leather-bound covers? Or can it be a sketch on a coffee-stained napkin? as simple as a home-cooked meal and a beautifully-arranged bouquet of daffodils?
Though we imagine art is something lofty, the artist is someone who is simply awake to being alive in the world. What makes a man an artist is not his raw talent or technical skill but his way of seeing: to create, you have to have attentive eyes and a receptive mind, you have to— in the elevating words of Van Gogh— devote one’s life to the task of expressing the hidden poetry of the world. For the true artist, work is a labor of love undertaken in the spirit of generosity. As Ueland so eloquently expresses, we paint, we draw, we write because we cherish something:
“But the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.”
For Ueland, the defining characteristic of art is exquisite attention to detail and a devotion to truth:
“Van Gogh’s little drawing on the cheap note paper was a work of art because he loved the sky and the frail lamppost against it so seriously that he made the drawing with the most exquisite conscientiousness and care. He made it as much like what he loved as he could. You and I might have made the drawing and scratched it off roughly. Well, that would have been a good thing to do too. But Van Gogh made the drawing with seriousness and truth.”
Master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once said “all art is quite useless”— a rather ironic statement considering he was a playwright and poet. However, when he used the word “useless,” I think he meant in the sense that art has no practical purpose: it can’t keep you warm on a frigid winter night, it can’t nourish anything other than your soul. After all, if you were stranded on a deserted island, you’d want a compass and a canteen of water— not a volume of Shakespeare’s poems.
Those of us who aspire to be artists and writers are often reminded of our dream’s unfeasibility. “You can’t support yourself writing!” we hear from concerned relatives at Thanksgiving. If we’re bold enough to name ourselves writers over the clink of champagne glasses at a dinner party, we’re met with one question: “So are you published anywhere?” The assumption is making art is only worthwhile if it earns us acclaim or contributes to our income. We want things to be “useful.” To fritter away hours attempting to capture the surreal blues of a starry night would be a pointless endeavor— that is, unless we sold the painting or had the opportunity to showcase it in a museum.
However, for Ueland, art is valuable in and of itself— we should make art for its own sake. The rewards of a creative life are many: an awakeness to the marvels and mysteries of existence, a deeper appreciation for living. But the greatest reward is a clarified, magnified understanding. When we take the time to contemplate the colors of a spring sky and recreate it in words or in a painting, we see it more clearly. The result? We love it more dearly as well. So even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time was wasted. We’re always better for having created:
“And one of the most important of these intrinsic rewards is the stretched understanding, the illumination. By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it. In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”
Carl Sandburg wasn’t exaggerating when he said If You Want to Write was “the best book ever written about how to write.” It’s one of a few cherished volumes (among them The Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, and Becoming a Writer) that I revisit every few years. If you want more soul-sustaining encouragement from Brenda Ueland, revel in her insights on art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine and the incubation of ideas & the importance of idleness to creativity. For practical nuts-and-bolts advice about the writing craft, study the wisdom of Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and John Hersey.