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.

Alain de Botton on How to Listen to Your Boredom

Insatiably curious, children have a hard time concentrating on any one thing for too long; if you sit with a child and try to teach them long division, for example, you’ll most likely be met with the disgruntled complaint “I’m bored!!!”  After a single problem, your restless pupil will want to play his saxophone, pretend to be an astronaut, or draw stick figures on the board.

In many ways, the goal of education is to teach children to withstand such boredom.  From 8:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon for twelve years of their lives, children have to resist the urge to write stories and build blanket forts so they can learn how to add two digit numbers, compose neat, orderly paragraphs, and locate the atomic mass of elements on the periodic table.  To excel academically, they must endure long periods of boredom.

On one hand, there is obviously value in this educational model.  School teaches the discipline and steadfastness to stick with a subject even when it doesn’t immediately interest us.  If we couldn’t occasionally tolerate doing things we disliked, we’d never be prepared to enter the adult world.  After all, much of adulthood is doing things we don’t want to: going to long meetings, listening to maddening elevator music while waiting on the phone with Comcast, having dinner with our in-laws to name a few.

The problem is as we grow up, we become too good at ignoring our boredom.  Because school requires us to suppress our natural curiosity and essentially disregard our interests and enthusiasms, we stopped listening to our boredom.  But boredom— like all emotions— has something valuable to teach us.  Boredom is a sign that something is amiss.  If we feel wearisome, whatever we’re doing is lacking interest and engagement.  

Rather than be a strict school master to ourselves and demand we do things we find dreadfully dull, we should find what truly exhilarates us.  In his edifying A More Exciting Life, Alain de Botton makes the compelling claim that the average human life is only 26,000 days, far too short to squander on occupations we find boring.  Ultimately, Botton gives us permission to stop being such dutiful “good” students.  Instead of obey our inner school teacher and do things out of a dreary sense of duty and obligation, we should be like children and value our own penchants and predilections. 

Pick up the latest bestseller only to find it so yawns-worthy you couldn’t get past the first five pages?  Don’t demand that “you finish what you started.”  Find a book that absorbs your attention and keeps you turning pages.

Go to an art museum only to struggle to stay awake?  Ditch the MOMA and go see a movie.  There’s no reason to make yourself appreciate Van Gogh if you find reading placards and staring at paintings all day woefully uninteresting.

Force yourself to read the morning paper every day even though you dread the exercise?  Stop trying to “be informed” and read something you find fascinating, whether that’s children’s literature or 19th century poetry.  

When we listen to our boredom, we learn what we like and dislike, what we love and what we loathe; we discover what sort of books we prefer, what kind of music stirs our souls; we define our aesthetic, our sense of humor, our taste in clothes.  In other words, we become like all great artists and develop a “late style.”

What, exactly, is a late style?  According to Botton, as artists get older, they tend to create far better works.  Take Picasso.  A child prodigy, Picasso exhibited extraordinary artistic talent from a young age.  In the masterful “Study of a Torso” (depicted below), he had already grasped the fundamental principles of painting.  Remarkably, he made this work when he was only 14.

Though Picasso’s early work demonstrated considerable technical skill, his later work was far more original.  Take the below oil painting “The Dream” as an example.  Painted in a single afternoon in 1932 when Picasso was 50, “The Dream” is a revolution of color and form.  No longer bound to traditional ideas of how to depict reality, Picasso experimented with distorted shapes and bold, contrasting colors. 

The titan of 20th century art once said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.  What he meant was that it took him decades to unlearn all his instruction and instead paint like himself.  In school, he learned to paint “properly”: how to proportion a face, how to depict a beautiful woman sitting on a sofa.  He mastered the principles of line and shape, unity and harmony, color and form.  The result?  He produced many expertly-crafted paintings, but they were paintings we’d seen countless times before.

However, as he got older, Picasso became less afraid of breaking from convention and more devoted to pursuing his own pleasure.  Rather than “ignore [his] inborn ideas and impulses,” he listened to his boredom.  He didn’t want to paint faithful-to-life representations— he wanted to paint in a way that reflected his own perspective.  So he abandoned the traditional rules of composition and started painting like he wanted: with a playful disregard of reality, with a passion for the phantasmagorical, with expressive brushstrokes, with strong, striking colors.

Like Picasso, we should develop a “late style” and pay attention to what truly excites us.  What kind of work do we find most fulfilling?  What qualities do we most desire in a romantic partner?  How do we want to spend our time?  Where would we travel if we could go anywhere?  Botton reminds us we don’t all have to paint classical Greek torsos— we can paint surreal women on bright red sofas.

Alain de Botton on How to Lengthen Your Life

apples & orangesIs there anything that fills us with more terror than death?  We do everything in our power to postpone it: we eat kale, run marathons, join Soul Cycle, do juice cleanses.  But no matter how healthily we eat or rigorously we bicycle, we can’t escape the inescapable.  Even if quitting our nasty habit of smoking does add 5 years to our lives, there’s no guarantee that those extra 5 years will make our lives more meaningful.

In his latest book A More Exciting Life, which taught us how to deal with depression, overcome the pressure to be exceptional, be more pessimistic, prioritize small pleasures, gain self-knowledge, and listen to our boredom, incredible intellect Alain de Botton argues that “if the goal is to have a longer life…the priority should not be to add raw increments of time, but to ensure whatever years remain feel appropriately substantial.” 

As Einstein discovered over one hundred years ago, time is relative— not absolute.  Unlike other units of measurement like feet or inches, how we experience hours and minutes changes: the five minutes before summer vacation can feel like five hours, the lovely afternoon we spend with our crush can pass in what seems like seconds.  Time can drag ploddingly or race mind-blowingly fast.  As Einstein once said, “When you sit with a pretty girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours.  That’s relativity.”

But why is it, exactly, that time accelerates when we get older?  When we’re children, life feels like it will go on forever.  But as we age, time speeds up: in our twenties, it jogs; in our thirties, it sprints; in our forties and beyond, the hands of the clock seem to move at a million miles an hour.

For Botton, “the difference in pace is not mysterious; it has to do with novelty.  The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel.  Conversely, the more one day is exactly like another, the faster it will pass by in a blur.”  In childhood, each day contains novel encounters and never-before-seen characters.  Our early life is essentially defined by “firsts”: our first time standing on our own two feet, our first time going to grade school, our first time bringing our beloved Curious George doll to show-and-tell, our first time losing a tooth.  Not yet made weary by experience, we are astonished by the most ordinary things: the cycles of day and night, the miracle of rain, the basic arithmetic of 2 + 2.  Our curiosity is insatiable.  We want to know why we exist, why human civilizations rise and fall, why the octopus has eight legs and why clouds form.

But by middle age, life loses some of its novelty.  We may have important jobs and traveled thousands of miles.  Everyday things no longer spark a feeling of wonderment.  We’re no longer interested in the stars in the sky or the depths of Earth’s oceans.  We find most things tedious.  We have mastered the major disciplines: English, history, calculus, physics.  We know “adult” things like how to open a bank account and make a dinner reservation.  Because we believe we’ve seen it all, there are very few things that absorb our attention.

In adulthood, most of our days unfold in the exact same way: we rise at 6:30, make our morning coffee, shower, scramble to make orange juice and waffles for our children and get ourselves ready.  We follow the exact same route— left on Meredith, right on Channing— to the subway station and take the red line downtown just as we do every morning.  We make small talk with the same people, write the same emails, go to the same meetings only to wake up the next day and do the exact same thing.  “As a result,” Botton writes, “time runs away from us without mercy.”

So how do we lengthen our lives?  The most obvious answer is to find more exhilarating sources of novelty.  We need to visit the pyramids of Giza and the wondrous rainforests of the Amazon.  We need the adrenaline rush of jumping off of planes and swimming with Galapagos sharks.  If we want fresh experiences, we believe, we have to travel to faraway places where people practice strange customs and speak foreign languages— we can’t remain confined to the dull familiarity of our own backyards. 

“However,” Botton objects, “this is to labour under an unfair, expensive and ultimately impractical notion of novelty: that it must involve seeing new things when it should really involve seeing familiar things with new eyes.”  In reality, we don’t have to parachute out of planes or fly to Tahiti to find something beautiful or interesting.  We just have to be willing to look at things differently.  Like an explorer from a distant land or an alien who lands in a cornfield from Kepler 16b, we can bring attentive eyes to the things we normally neglect.  Rather than regard the ordinary and commonplace with world-weariness, we can recapture the child’s ability to be astonished.

In this new state of mind, simple things like a red carnation or the intoxicating scent of perfume on a summer wind reveal themselves remarkable things worthy of appreciation.  No longer do we regard our loved ones as predictable characters from a novel we’ve already read— we realize they’re just as mysterious as strangers in a subway station.  The city we’ve lived our entire lives becomes as awe-inspiring as the canals of Venice.  

If we want to live longer lives, we can learn something from artists.  As Botton so eloquently writes in his other masterpiece of philosophy, The Art of Travel, the central task of the artist is to open our eyes to what regularly escapes our notice: Chardin, for example, opens our eyes to the understated elegance of a glass of wine and loaf of bread; Cezanne to the neglected beauty of apples and oranges; Van Gogh to the glorious primary colors of Provence.  Unlike us, the artist doesn’t let habit get in the way of wonderment.  Rather than let life slip away, he remains awake to the dignity of the old peasant, the drama of a group of men playing cards, the aesthetically-pleasing proportions of a jug of milk and wedge of cheese.  Because the artist is curious and conscious, a single second can feel like an eternity.  He might not live longer than the average person, but his life feels longer because he lives more deeply.

In the end, we can never defeat mortality.  But we can make the most of the short lives we have by savoring the small moments of our day.  Even if we never compose a poem or paint a still life, we can adopt the artist’s orientation to the world and, as Botton concludes, “aim to live more deliberately.”

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Scavenger Hunt of Curiosity

When Sylvia Plath wrote her perennial classic The Bell Jar, we imagine she was overcome by a burning passion for her subject, that she was obsessed with the repressive patriarchy of the 1950s, mental hospitals and electro-shock treatments.  But what if she wasn’t immediately infatuated with her concept?  What if The Bell Jar began as a simple attempt to recreate that “queer, sultry summer” in 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle and the Rosenbergs were electrocuted?

I write often about how we romanticize the artist’s life.  We glamorize the tired and trite “suffering artist” archetype, we worship the myth of the “muse.”  But perhaps one of the most persistent (and pernicious) myths about art is that the artist only creates because he “has” to.  To write— we think— the writer must be seized by a Big Idea.  In a sudden burst of ecstatic inspiration, he has no choice but to obey the callings of the muse.  His productivity is frenzied, fiery.  He can’t sleep, he can’t eat.  All his thoughts unceasingly circulate around one thing: his idea.  His work most closely resembles a passionate love affair.

I myself rarely have this experience.  Indeed, at first, I almost never am “in love” with an idea.  A topic might interest me like a handsome, mysterious man in the corner of a bar.  Do I want to dramatically kiss him like we’re Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca?  No, but I’m intrigued enough to walk across the room, spark a conversation and buy him a beer.

In her wondrous Big Magic, the ever-endearing Elizabeth Gilbert makes an unconventional argument: if you want to write, you need curiosity, not passion.  In our passion-crazed culture, we believe our work should be a consuming love affair as steamy as a clandestine kiss stolen in an elevator.  However, our next idea rarely (if ever) arrives in a lighting bolt of inspiration— it comes in hints, murmurs, and whispers.

In one of my favorite chapters “The Scavenger Hunt,” Gilbert describes the process of writing her page-turning period piece The Signature of All Things, a tale of adventure and discovery that traces the story of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant botanist during the 19th century.  Before she embarked on The Signature of All Things, Gilbert was experiencing a dry spell.  What— she wondered for months— did she want to do next?  Did she want to write a sweeping historical novel?  a piece of non-fiction?  another Eat, Pray, Love-style memoir?

Like many of us, Gilbert longed for irrepressible desire; she wanted her next project to give her goosebumps and butterflies, to sweep her off her feet, to court and woo her.  When such an idea never came, she decided to settle for curiosity.  Rather than wait for the idea to magically fall from the sky, she asked herself a simple question: was there anything she was interested in?  anything at all?  As Gilbert writes,

“I kept waiting for a big idea to arrive, and I kept announcing to the universe that I was ready for a big idea to arrive, but no big ideas arrived.  There were no goose bumps, no hair standing on the back of my neck, no butterflies in my stomach.  There was no miracle.

[…]

Most days, this is what life is like.  I poked about for a while in my everyday chores— writing emails, shopping for socks, resolving small emergencies, sending out birthday cards.  I took care of the orderly business of life.  As time ticked by and an impassioned idea still hadn’t ignited me, I didn’t panic.  Instead, I did what I have done so many times before: I turned my attention away from passion and toward curiosity.

I asked myself, Is there anything you’re interested in right now, Liz?

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?”

Once Gilbert decided to let go of the need for passion and instead follow her curiosity, she realized she was interested in something: gardening.  Was she obsessed with gardening?  Would she die for a field of red carnations?  No, but she was curious.  She had just moved to a small town in rural New Jersey and wanted to plant a garden.  So she planted heirloom irises and lilacs and tulips.  In the process, she discovered that many of the gorgeous flowers in her garden actually originated in faraway, exotic places.  Her tulips were from Turkey; her irises were from Syria.  Every little flower in her garden contained a history she had not been aware of.

The more Gilbert learned, the more her curiosity bloomed.  She read books about botanists and explorers; she trekked across the globe from her small town in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of Polynesia; she poured over historical documents and interviewed experts.  Soon Gilbert was so fanatically obsessed with botanical history that she decided to write a book.

Had Gilbert disregarded her interest in gardening, she would have never written The Signature of All Things.  As she confesses with equal parts humor and humility,

“It was a novel I never saw coming.  It had started with nearly nothing.  I did not leap into that book with my hair on fire; I inched toward it, clue by clue.  But by the time I looked up from my scavenger hunt and began to write, I was completely consumed with passion about nineteenth-century botanical exploration.  Three years earlier, I had never even heard of nineteenth-century botanical exploration—  all I’d wanted was a modest garden in my backyard!— but now I was writing a massive story about plants, and science, and evolution, and abolition, and love, and loss, and one woman’s journey into intellectual transcendence.

So it worked.  But it only worked because I said yes to every single tiny clue of curiosity.”

If you’re feeling stuck and having trouble choosing your next project, heed Ms. Gilbert’s advice: stop romanticizing the drama and excitement of passion and instead follow the not-so-obvious clues of your curiosity.

Elizabeth Gilbert: What’s Your Favorite Flavor of Shit Sandwich?

In her radiant, resplendent Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, who taught us how to embrace the paradoxical principles of creative living and rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence, tells the story of one of her friends who was an aspiring writer.  Much like her, he wanted nothing more than to be published.  Despite his determination, the only thing in his mailbox were rejections.  As time went on, the young writer got more and more discouraged.  What was the point?  Why write at all if he wasn’t going to “make” something of it?  “I don’t want to be just sitting around,” he grumbled to Gilbert, “I want this to all add up to something.  I want this to become my job!”  Tormented by the thought that all his hard work would come to “nothing,” the young writer sank into a serious depression.  Eventually, he put down his pen and paper and gave up.

Why did this young man stop writing?  Simple: he wasn’t willing to eat the shit sandwich.

What’s a shit sandwich?

The shit sandwich is a concept Ms. Gilbert borrowed from the four-letter-word-loving provocateur Mark Manson.  The idea goes that anything worthwhile comes with its own stinky brand of shit sandwich.  Every relationship, every city, every job, every profession has disadvantages.

The man of your dreams may possess everything you’ve ever wanted— a sharp mind, a good sense of humor, a gentle, sensitive nature— but have one serious flaw; perhaps he has an obnoxious obsession with recounting movie plots or has children from a previous partner.

The city you’ve always romanticized may be picturesque on postcards but have sidewalks littered with heroin needles and a serious homeless problem.

No matter how glittery or glamorous a job may seem, there will always be tedious things lurking beneath its glossy exterior.  A fashion editor, for instance, may get free Prada handbags and sip champagne in chiffon, but she may also have to work on a tight deadline and deal with constantly being chewed out by her tyrannical boss.  A famous musician may get to play in front of thousands of screaming fans but also have to live out of a suitcase on a tour bus.  A doctor may possess the prestige of a PhD and make a six figure salary, but also have to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before he can call himself a doctor.  As Gilbert writes:

“What Manson means is that every single pursuit…comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects.  As Manson writes with profound wisdom, “Everything sucks, some of the time.”  You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with.  So the question is not so much ‘What are you passionate about?’  The question is ‘What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?'”

elizabeth gilbert #2

Gilbert’s friend claimed he wanted to be a writer but he wasn’t willing to do what it took to be a writer.  The demoralizing rejection letters, the lack of respect or recognition, the concerned looks of sensible relatives: this is the stomach-churning shit you have to eat if you want to be a writer.  Writing isn’t just Pulitzer prizes and interviews with Oprah: it’s years of toiling away in obscurity, it’s hurtful criticism, it’s losing contest after contest, it’s impersonal form rejection letters.  But if you love writing— or anything— enough, you can tolerate the shit sandwich that accompanies your sumptuous feast of a three-course dinner.  The joy of writing— of simply putting one word against another— makes up for the heartbreaking years of being a nobody and the sting of a harsh review in the New Yorker.

The Paradoxical Principles of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Philosophy of Creativity

When we talk about our writing lives, we often exist in the confining black and white binary of either/or.

Either we write the next Great American Novel or a trashy paperback. 

Either we quit our jobs and be “real” artists or suffer the soul-sucking 9-to-5 and slowly lose our will to live in a dreary gray cubicle

Either we write a massively successful New York Times best seller or fail.

Either we’re darlings of the critics or dismissed, shunned and ignored. 

Either we catapult to literary superstardom or toil away for years, pathetic and unknown. 

Either art sparks revolutions, changes people’s lives and makes a difference in the world or it sits, limpid and lifeless, on book shelves and gallery walls. 

Either art expands our hearts and stirs our souls or provides momentary entertainment— nothing more.

Either what we create matters or it doesn’t matter at all.

However if we are to live a creative life, bubbly, buoyant Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we should embrace the puzzling paradox of “and” and reject the overly simplistic mindset of “either/or.”  Much like Gretchen Rubin, who observed that the opposite of a great truth is also true, Gilbert believes two contradictory ideas can be correct at the same time.  Art is useless and worthwhile.  Composing a poem is not nearly as important as stopping global warming or finding a cure for cancer and it’s just as crucial.  Sonnets and symphonies are both pointless pleasures and nourishment for the soul.  Making things is a frivolous pastime and a miracle.

elizabeth gilbert signature of all things

In the conclusion to her gleeful guide to creative living Big Magic, which I’ve reread at least once a year since first discovering it three years ago, Gilbert shares her creative manifesto:

           “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

           What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.

           We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

           We are terrified, and we are brave.

           Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.

           Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”

In the end, if you want to write (or paint or sculpt or film or draw or sew), you must love your work deeply yet regard it lightly, you must take what you do seriously yet not care about it at all.  Writing a sentence, you consider each word: its meaning, its melody, its connotations, its tone.  In much the same way a chef considers whether his roasted duck will pair well with Merlot, you select your sentences with care and savor the sumptuous feast of your every word.  However— if after all your labor— you realize what you wrote doesn’t work, you’re willing to send it to the chopping block and start over.  As Gilbert says with refreshing irreverence, what we create is sacred and not sacred: our words are just words.

Big Magic is as indispensable to a writer’s library as The Artist’s Way, as wondrous as If You Want to Write, and as consoling and comforting as Bird by Bird.  Want more maps to chart the at times difficult writing life?  Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments, Brenda Ueland on why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies and Rilke on how to know you’re an artist and why you must be patient if you’re going to lead a creative life.

3 Writers Who Had Day Jobs

“Follow your dreams.”  “Take risks.”  “Be brave.”  In hopeful America where ambition is as tall as the Empire State Building, we romanticize the risk-takers who take big, bold steps toward their dreams: the aspiring novelists who quit their soul-sapping day jobs to toil away in anonymity, the artists who sacrifice everything.  We want grand gestures done in the name of creativity: a Leo Tolstoy who sacrifices his material possessions to go on a spiritual quest, a Van Gogh who devotes his life to his art, despite the fact that he can never make a living from his paintings.

In our cultural consciousness, being an artist means living in a bohemian studio in Brooklyn or Montparnasse and leading a Dionysian life of cheap wine, cocaine and excess.  An artist can’t work a conventional job at a bank or an insurance company, he certainly can’t have a normal, quiet life and rejoice in the trappings of the middle-class bourgeoisie.

To be a “real” writer, you have to write full time and make money from your writing.  Working a regular 9-to-5 job while pursuing your art on the side is seen as cowardly.  After all, shouldn’t a “real” writer fearlessly pursue his dreams instead of care too much about practical matters like mortgage payments and 401ks?

But nothing is more damaging to the muse than demanding she support you financially.  No matter how much we glamorize the myth of the starving artist, there’s nothing glamorous about stressing about money.  Buoyant spirit and overall beautiful human being Elizabeth Gilbert is a passionate champion of working to provide for your creativity.  Before she wrote her blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, she worked countless jobs to sustain herself while writing.  At various points in her life, she was a tutor, a cook, a waitress, a bartender.  At fifteen, she made a pact with her creativity: “I will never ask you to support me financially.  I will support both of us.”  Instead of “be brave” and quit her day job, Gilbert worked so she could pay the rent and focus on what really mattered: her art.

Despite the destructive myth that being a “real” writer means writing for a living, Mason Currey’s “delightful book of quirks and oddities,” Daily Rituals reveals many of the most distinguished writers held ordinary occupations during the day.  Below are three world class writers who had regular jobs despite their massive success in writing:

1. T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Is there anything less poetic than working at bank?  Yet titan of modernist poetry T.S. Eliot worked as a clerk at London’s Lloyd’s Bank for nearly a decade.  From 1917-1925 in between writing some of the most revolutionary poetry of the century, Eliot wore a pin-striped suit, parted his hair seriously to one side and worked what would appear to be a rather dull office job in the bank’s foreign transactions department.  Like the rest of us bread-and-butter slaves, he commuted on a crowded train every morning (“I am sojourning among the termites,” he wrote to British writer and critic Lytton Strachey) and worked Monday through Friday from 9:15-5:30.

The banker’s life may have lacked the thrill and romance of the poet’s, but Eliot was grateful for a steady paycheck and reliable gig.  Before his job at Lloyd’s, he worked as a teacher at Highgate School where he taught French and Latin.  To subsidize his meager income, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses at Oxford and University College London.  Not only was teaching exhausting, it narrowly paid the bills and barely left him enough time for his true calling.  Therefore, when he got the position at Lloyd’s, Eliot was overjoyed.  Two days after receiving the appointment, he wrote his mother, “I am now earning two pounds ten shillings a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5:00 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in office…Perhaps it will surprise you that I enjoy the work.  It is not nearly so fatiguing as school teaching and it is more interesting.”

Though Eliot did eventually leave his bourgeois job at the bank for a more “literary” position as an editor at Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), his years at Lloyd’s helped him establish himself as a writer.  Had he not had the stability afforded by a 9-to-5 job, perhaps Eliot would have never written “The Wasteland” or been able to show us fear in a handful of dust.

2. Wallace Stevens

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

Wallace Stevens was yet another poet who spent his days in a gray-colored cubicle.  Rather than chase his literary dreams after graduating from Harvard, Stevens took his father’s advice and made the sensible choice to attend law school.  He later accepted a position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where his main responsibility was evaluating insurance claims as an insurance lawyer.  Stevens was so successful that he was promoted to vice president of the company in 1934. 

Though it’s hard to imagine a poet indulging in trivial office gossip around the water cooler, Stevens loved the stability of the corporate 9-to-5.  “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once confessed, “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.”

Many of us think that to write you need yawning vistas of time: a year long sabbatical, an entire summer, at least an afternoon of uninterrupted hours.  However, we’re often more productive when we have more— not fewer— demands on our time.  When you have a full-time job, you have to make time to write.  Stevens, for example, would write poetry on long walks during his lunch hour (like Henry David Thoreau and William Wordsworth before him, he knew walking was the fertile soil where the seeds of great ideas were planted).  When inspiration unexpectedly struck at the office, Stevens would scribble fragments of poems onto bits of paper, file them in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, and have his secretary type them.

Like Eliot, Stevens kept a day job because he didn’t want to worry about dollars and cents.  We may romanticize poets who die destitute in garrets, but there’s nothing romantic about being penniless.  In fact, money troubles distract from creativity and cause enormous stress.  Stevens’ substantial salary as a lawyer ($20,000 a year, equivalent to about $350,000 today) promised money— or lack of it— never interfered with his poetry.  “I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about money,” Stevens once wrote, grateful for his days at the office.

3. Anthony Trollope

Many know that Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific writers of all time, but fewer know that he wrote many of his 47 novels, 42 short stories and 5 travel books while employed.  From 1834 to 1867, the English novelist worked as a civil servant at the General Post Office and only wrote in the three hours before dressing for breakfast.

Trollope’s routine was strict and unvarying.  In his Autobiography, he admitted, “I allowed myself no mercy.”  Every morning— no matter what— he rose at 5:30 and began working.  To hold himself accountable, he paid an old butler 5 pounds to wake up with him and bring him coffee.  “I owe more to him than to any one else for the success that I have had,” Trollope once said, half-seriously.

With only a few hours before he had to be at the post office, Trollope required himself to produce at least 250 words every quarter of an hour.  By the end of the morning, he’d have written a whole 10 pages of a novel, a pace— if sustained— that would result in 2,400 pages, or several lengthy novels, by the end of a year.

Trollope’s dedication to his craft was no doubt influenced by his mother, who took up writing later in life to support her six children and Trollope’s ailing father.  Like most women throughout history, Mrs. Trollope was primarily responsible for housework and child-rearing.  To be able to write and still fulfill her domestic duties, she rose before sunrise everyday.  Both Trollope and his mother are proof that if you really want to write, you can find the time…even if it’s at 5:30 in the morning.