In If You Want to Write, published in 1938, author Brenda Ueland shares her philosophies on writing. One central idea she stresses is the idea that everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. The book was republished in 1987 by Graywolf Press, and it remains to this day their most popular title. Carl Sandburg, famous poetry and non-fiction author and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, called this the best book ever written on how to write.
Born in 1891, Ueland published six million words over her long career as a journalist, editor, freelance writer, and teacher of writing. Besides If You Want to Write, she has published one other book, an autobiography entitled Me: A Memoir, in 1939. Since her death, a collection of her writing has been published, as has a biography she wrote about her mother in the 1950s. However, If You Want to Write remains her most famous work.
There are plenty of practical advantages of this text to a writer of any discipline. Make clear that this nor the other book gives any specific how-to writing lessons, but instead offers nuggets of wisdom that all writers should learn from. The most practical pieces of advice: always write from a place of truth, write with abandon and freedom, never write for money or to impress people, take a walk every day to help with ideas, and to take the time every day to just sit and wait for the inspiration.
The primary audience of writers of all kinds — fiction writers, non-fiction writers, memoir writers — while the secondary audience is anyone who creates. She even discusses at one point in the book that she hopes this book would be helpful for all artists, including filmmakers, actors, painters, sculptors, and more. It is one of those rare books that writers can turn to time and time again in their lives when they get stuck, when they feel like they’re doing mediocre work, when they’re not happy with their work. Stress this isn’t a book that shows you how to learn to write better descriptions or characters, or reflects on themes and point of view and how to get an agent. It’s a book of inspiration that writers can breeze through anyone they need a kick in the pants to get better in their writing. And it forces them to always, always, always tell the truth.
Her best nuggets of wisdom: We find things to do besides art all the time. Mothers clean their kids instead of playing the piano. Men go to work in a cubicle all day instead of writing a poem. “It won’t pay.” “People will think it’s silly.” Never, never write if your only goal is one of two things: make money, or impress people. The real writers are those who were told they would never be published again, would never make another cent again, yet would still go on writing.
If you try to write something for money, it will be stiff and stale. If you write something out of love, it will be better. Uses a Renaissance nobleman and Vincent van Gogh as examples of men who wrote out of love and nothing else, and created beautiful works of art. She says, even if you never get your writing published or make a dime, it is still worthy work.
If the ideas aren’t coming, sit at your desk for an hour and free-write. Or look out the window and count the clouds in the sky. Do something simple like that. She suggests the best way to get the inspiration flowing is to take a walk outside every day. A long, carefree walk. Look around you, be in the present. This is when ideas come.
A trouble with writers is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. This kind of thinking doesn’t get the writer anywhere. She was able as a teacher to break them of this and have them write in a true, remarkable way. Instead of criticizing them, she helped them be more free and bold. To be careless, reckless. To write any way they want. She gives writers courage, not criticism.
Microscopic truthfulness: one needs to tell a story, not write it. It does no good to make your writing sound more intelligent, or snappier, if the characters aren’t alive on the page. She talks of a student who is an okay writer, but her work is so commonplace, filled with little detail and freshness. In her first stories, she tried to sell, to make an impression, and this weakened her writing. Her truthfulness when she examined the servant called forth more empathy in her observation.
Truth in writing is more important than fancy words! Never let “oughts” block you. I ought to be funnier, I ought to be wiser. This will hinder your writing. Don’t write like an advertising writer. If you don’t feel it, don’t write it. Tell the truth about your characters. Did your character really fasten a grip against the armchair until his knuckles turned white? If they didn’t turn white, it’s false! Don’t write it! Remember that I write slowly, but the reader reads fast! The reader constantly wants to know what is going to happen next. Don’t forget this. If what I write bores me, it will bore other people! If you try to prove something to the world, and go after fame and fortune, the writing will read false. Everyone should work on their writing every day. Work and shine eternally. Don’t worry so much about the whole of your novel. Write what comes next.
Lastly, try not to plan so much when writing a book. Write first, then plan later. Again discusses why she hates critics. Says they kill the soul of the writer. She feels sorry for English teachers because they have to nitpick and hate on so much. Instead of love, the hate drowns their own creativity! It is because of the haters and the doubters that we have such timidity when we write. We have to move past it.