Brenda Ueland Answers the Immortal Question: Why Write?

“Why do you write?”  In “Why I Write,” a tribute to George Orwell’s iconic 1946 essay of the same name, legendary journalist Joan Didion confessed with characteristic candor, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”  When writer, journalist, and book critic Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors, including Jodi Picoult, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, Michael Lewis, and James Frey, she was astonished at the assortment of answers.  Kathryn Harrison, whose incestuous memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world, said she loved writing because on the page she “could be most completely” herself and yet “totally relieved” of herself, a sentiment reminiscent of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow and the Taoist idea of “wu wei.”  Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan replied she wrote because writing was a magical mode of teleportation in which she could live countless other lives: “When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now…and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.”

Sometimes when I’m in a melancholy mood, this question becomes more existential: “What’s the point?  Why write at all?” I wonder defeated as yet another year goes by without my publishing the Great American Novel.  Which begs the question: why write if you never see your name in print?  if you never win a Man Booker or climb the New York Times best-seller list?  

Most writers dream of being praised by critics and enshrined in the literary canon, their books taught in English classrooms everywhere.  Though we didn’t get into writing for fame and fortune exactly, most of us want to be heard.  Writing without a reader seems as pointless as a magnificent orchestra playing for an empty room.

It is during these demoralizing moments that we must remember the real reasons we write.  In her stirring 1938 classic If You Want to Write, journalist, editor, writing teacher, and generous spirit Brenda Ueland reminds us writing is a higher calling: we write to express love, to offer solace, to cherish transitory moments, to heighten our senses, to gain a richer, deeper understanding of ourselves and our lives— not for worldly glory or impressive bylines.  With her trademark exuberance, she writes:

“And why should you do all these things?  Why should we all use our creative power and write or paint or play music, or whatever it tells us to do?

Because there’s nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.  Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it.  And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it; i.e. share it with others?”

So as we ring in 2022 with ceremonial champagne and confetti, resolve to express your creativity, regardless of whether doing so brings you renown or celebrity.

The Importance of “I”: Brenda Ueland on the Particular as a Pathway to the Universal

“I.”  The ninth letter of the alphabet.  Though it’s just a single letter— composed, as Sylvia Plath once observed, of “three reassuring strokes”— “I” encompasses the entirety of the human ego.  “I” represents the lens through which we see the world, the sum total of all we’ve seen and thought and felt.  By definition, no two “I’s” are exactly alike (after all, have there ever been two identical individuals in the history of the world?).  Thus, Brenda Ueland reassured us, “if you speak from yourself, you cannot help being original.”

Yet most of us resist speaking sincerely from ourselves because we believe that everything we have to say is stupid, uninteresting, and unoriginal.  This distaste for “I” begins in our early years in grade school.  “Never use ‘I’!” our English teachers scribbled disapprovingly in our notebooks.  Because we were forbidden from using the 1st person, we came to believe “I” was too unscholarly, too unserious, too informal.  Essays should be about the causes of WWII, the symbolism of Fitzgerald’s green light, the theme of marriage in the Victorian novel— not the catastrophes of our dating life or the loss of our father.

Sadly, most of us think our stories aren’t worth telling unless they’re larger than life, out-of-the-ordinary.  No one, we convince ourselves, wants to hear what we have to say— we’re “boring”!  After all, who wants to read about an everyman mechanic from New Jersey when they could read an adventure tale about a big game hunter on safari or an epic romance about a fallen Southern belle?  Compared to novels and movies on the silver screen, our commonplace lives feel unforgivably yawns-worthy.

But to be writers, we must honor— rather than discount— our own experiences.  Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, great writers describe the quality of their consciousness.  Rather than disregard their particular lives, they’re always alert to the potential for art in their experiences: an overheard bit of conversation at a cafe might provide material for a novel’s central conflict, a squabble with a lover might supply dialogue for a movie script.

But the question remains: why write from “I”?  who cares about our particular experiences?

In her 1938 classic If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland argues we should write from “I” because the particular is the only pathway to the universal.  Take Sylvia Plath as an example.  As one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, Plath pioneered the idea of writing from “I.”  By writing truthfully about her experiences as a woman, especially in “The Applicant,” her scathing satire of marriage, and The Bell Jar, her harrowing account of mental illness, Plath was able to resonate with a generation of Feminine Mystique-era feminists.  Like Plath, a Beaver-to-Cleaver era housewife who suffered at the hands of her sexist society, 1960s women began to feel dissatisfied with their roles as wives and mothers.  The prescient poet detected these seismic shifts in the culture.  It is only because Plath dared to express the particular that she was able to glimpse the condition of women everywhere.

So when you write, cherish your one-of-a-kind life and remember the wise words of Ms. Ueland: “The more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.”

Brenda Ueland on What Makes Writing Good

As an English teacher and writer, I’ve always wondered: what makes writing good?  Like a music producer who knows when he’s discovered the next star, we know when we’ve encountered someone with a talent for words (“Wow, this is good!” my twelve-year-old students exclaim when I show them a passage from The Great Gatsby or A Farewell of Arms) yet it’s hard to dissect why a piece is good.  Is it the rhythm of a writer’s sentences?  the beauty of their choice of words?  Is it the irresistible logic of their argument or the originality of their ideas?  Was it something that could be taught or was it something more mysterious, a gift bestowed on a select few?

In If You Want to Write, the soul-stirring entreaty to write daringly and dauntlessly from your authentic self, Brenda Ueland explores what makes writing “good.”  After teaching all kinds of people, Ueland came to believe that all people can write and write well.  Whether you’re a business executive or traveling salesmen, an apron-skirted housewife or sheltered servant, a stock trader on Wall Street or panhandler on 42nd, you can write well if you write honestly, if what you write is alive and can be felt.

To illustrate this idea, Ueland describes one of her students, a bold, vivacious young woman with clear green eyes and black hair.  Though she had a “hearty baritone laugh” and was as “dashing as a Cossack,” her first drafts often fell flat.

Despite these feeble first attempts, Ueland knew the woman could write.  “To look at her I knew that her writing would be good because it would be like her: jolly, handsome, loud-laughing and slightly ribald.  Because she had vitality and bright colors, I knew that she could see bright colors and they would sparkle in her writing, and so would her jokes and her stylishness.”

But how could this woman be so irresistible in life yet so boring and bland on the page?  Simple: she wasn’t writing like herself— she was writing like a “writer.”  Rather than write truthfully and record what her characters thought and saw and felt (which would be infinitely interesting because they’d be expressions of her incomparable singular self), she assumed a persona whenever she wrote.  She was no longer a lively, light-hearted woman full of laughter— she was a serious erudite “author.”  Instead of describe things simply as they were, she’d reach for her Roget’s thesaurus to find a more “literary” word.  When her characters spoke in a real way like ordinary people she’d observed in grocery stores and subways, she filled their mouths with exalted, elevated dialogue.  “No, no!” she’d insist, “They must sound like Jane Austen characters!”  The result?  The woman with black hair and clear green eyes could only produce dead work.

Ironically, we only write badly when we try too hard to make our writing “good.”  What we call “bad” writing is merely an attempt to sound literary by using more pompous, pretentious words.  Though it’s been many years since most of us were in school, we remember all too clearly the red-inked admonishments of our English teachers:

“Avoid lifeless forms of ‘to be’ like ‘is’ or ‘are’!”

“Don’t use contractions like ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’!”

“Good writing is elaborate.  Shakespeare would never be so lowly as to use common words!” (Never mind that, for all his extensive vocabulary, the bard loved simple, monosyllabic terms).

“When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words,” Ueland advised her students nearly a century ago, “Try to see the people better.”  Rather than reach for more scholarly, sophisticated words, we should observe more closely.  To recreate a whole other world— whether it be in a story or song or symphony— we must first see it clearly.  If, like Van Gogh, we want to depict the surreal shape and strange movement of cypresses, we have to sit and study our object: what color are its leaves?  what are its dimensions?  how does its shape look against the summer sky?  how would we describe the movement of its bare branches?  Ultimately, art is an attentiveness to life and writing, like all art, begins with observation.

Need more of Brenda Ueland’s infectious enthusiasm and blazing spirit to rekindle your creative fire?  Read her on writer’s block, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity.  Want even more timeless advice on writing?  Visit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments from Bird by Bird, the endearing 1994 instruction manual on life and writing, and Dorothea Brande on the 15 minute rule and being a stranger in your streets from Becoming a Writer, a 1934 classic which combines the practical tips of modern how-to writing guides and the free spirit of If You Want to Write.

Brenda Ueland on Writer’s Block & What Good Writing Actually Is

The past few weeks I’ve been suffering from the writer’s most dreaded affliction: writer’s block.   Nothing interested me, nothing captured my attention.  Every idea I had seemed uninteresting, uninspired, imitative.  “This is bad!” the voice in my head ceaselessly chastised anytime I had the courage to put paper to pen.   

Having survived many bouts of writer’s block in the past, however, I knew it was a temporary matter— not a chronic condition.  To cure my creative cold, I reached for If You Want to Write, one of my most beloved books on writing.  Originally published in 1938 by journalist, editor, writing teacher, and magnanimous spirit Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write is a glorious reminder that to be human is to be creative (“Everyone is talented, original and has something important to say,” Ueland assures us from the book’s very first pages).

Ms. Ueland is the ideal teacher: emboldening, enthusiastic— never dispiriting or punitive.  Rather than scold us like a too-strict school master (“Underdeveloped…elaborate!” most teachers scribble in cruel, judgmental red pen), she gently encourages (“Oh, this is interesting…tell me more,” I can imagine Ueland writing in my margins).  In her words, she doesn’t help her students by criticizing, by “pointing out all the mediocrities in their efforts (and so making them contract and try nervously to avoid all faults)”; she helps them by trying to make them “freer and bolder.”  “Be careless, reckless!  Be a lion, be a pirate when you write!  Write any old way!” she implores us with a fun-loving free-spiritedness partway between Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron.

For Ueland, writer’s block (and what we call “bad” writing) is merely the result of wanting to write something great and make an impression.  If we think writing is a performance— a stage where we must dazzle and twirl and spin— we’ll get stage fright and fall on our asses.  On the other hand, words flow more freely if we remember that writing is a telling of truths— not a dramatic production.  If, like a witness testifying under oath, we write with genuineness and sincerity and resist the urge to exaggerate for effect, we’ll never write something “bad.”

In one my favorite chapters, “Know That There is Often Hidden in Us a Dormant Poet, Always Young and Alive (a quote borrowed from De Musset), Ueland recounts an evening she spent with Carl Sandburg, her dear friend and poet.  As they drove around a lake near her house, they gazed at the December sunset.  Overcome by awe, Sandburg described the sky as “gunmetal.”  To which Ueland replied, “Oh yes, isn’t it perfectly wonderful!”

Ueland would say Sandburg’s description was superior to hers because it was true.  His wonderment at the silver gray sky was genuine and, therefore, good.  Her gushing exclamation, on the other hand, was bad because it wasn’t actually felt.  The word “wonderful”— though not terrible in itself— rings with the insincerity of the commonplace, as cliched as telling a bride she looks beautiful on her wedding day.  “When you say perfunctorily about the sky just to talk: ‘What a beautiful evening!’ that is not poetry,” Ueland writes, “But if you say it and mean it very much, it is.”  So if you’re suffering from writer’s block or worried that your writing isn’t “good,” remember you only have one job: to say what is true.