If You Want to Write

Last Monday I mentioned a book, If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland, that I wish I had stumbled across before finishing my own Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy (out soon... I guess... publishers are opaque).

if you want to write.jpg

Ueland (1891–1985) was a freelance author who was born in Minnesota and returned there after a career in New York.  She taught "local writing classes," as Wikipedia puts it, and in 1938 she published If You Want to Write.  Carl Sandburg said it was the best book on writing ever written. (My copy is a facsimile edition from Martino Publishing.)

Sandburg was unwise to use the superlative, but If You Want is awfully fine. Ueland begins with the premise that everyone is talented and proceeds to work through the Precepts of Lichtenbergianism as if she had read my book first. She doesn't use our terms, of course, but they're all there.

She writes in a breezy conversational style that's easy to hear in that twee mid-Atlantic accent so beloved of movie stars of the time, addressing you, the reader, as if you were a student in her class.  (Do you think 80 years from now someone will write that one can hear my book in that twee early 21st century snark style so beloved of bloggers of the time?)

Ueland is a product of her time and class; sometimes that is a distraction.  There is a casual racism here and there, and she is clearly writing for women:

"You see I am so afraid that you will decide you are stupid and untalented. Or that you will put off working as so many wonderfully gifted people do, until that time when your husband can retire on full pay and all your children are out of college."

[on TASK AVOIDANCE] "Work on a Mozart sonata, say. (...) And all the time there is the solitude, the hour or two of isolation from daily life so much of which is nervous, cacophonous, where one's attention is unhappily jerked from this to that, so that the imagination inside cannot accumulate its strength and light."

I don't know about you, but I'm always grateful to escape to my Bösendorfer grand in the music room for the chance to work on Mozart.  Or even Scarlatti.

I'm being unkind.  Ueland may have been a privileged, educated woman, but her points are sound and she believes what she says.  She encouraged her students — she cannot abide instructors who criticize or nitpick — and she had faith in the creative human spirit.

Sounds like a Lichtenbergian to me.