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.