Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and SpiritIf You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Due to the author’s local fame, I used to see this book in a store that sold pricey gifts and knick-knacks to upper-middle-class women. It looked a little more intellectual than the other merchandise—I myself only ever bought expensive chocolate, scented candles, and the occasional stuffed animal there—so when I found it recently in a Little Free Library I decided to investigate further. After reading the book, I am faced with the old dilemma: should the critic write a bad review? Isn’t it better to celebrate what it is good, true, and beautiful than to whine about what’s bad, false, and ugly? The question answers itself, and with another: how will we know what is bad, false, and ugly if no one bothers to point it out? The shade of the intrepid Ms. Ueland will have to forgive me, but I am about to point it out. She has for her consolation her book’s still being in print almost three decades after her own death.

I cannot imagine a more discouraging text than this 1938 tract “about Art, Independence and Spirit” for those who want to write but aren’t sure how to start. For Ueland, you must first become a great and simple soul before you put pen to paper.

Her hero is Tolstoy, and she quotes throughout the book his praise for clean-living and peasant simplicities. (She was also a feminist and the daughter of a suffragette, so her several sallies throughout this book against tyrannical husbands who prevent their wives from writing clash with the Tolstoy-worship, given that he nearly enslaved his own wife to his literary, spiritual, and sexual will—but perhaps these sordid details weren’t well-known at the time.) Though Tolstoy was an aristocrat, and Ueland herself apparently well-off, her favorite students are the poor ones, because they write without affectation about their humble lives. Her other hero besides Tolstoy is Blake, who advocated the divine energy that inspires all true art. He too lived simply and produced much poetry and art that at least seems simple. She quotes his aphorism several times: “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” (Which invites the objection: what if one desires to strangle an infant in its cradle? I despise top-down exercises of authority more than anyone, so it’s a shame that anarchist and libertarian ideals are often expressed so stupidly.)

Ueland updates the Blakean and Tolstoyan antinomianism for the modern writing class. If she gives any practical technical advice at all, it is to write what you see with the energy of your soul, preferably in the least “literary” language you can find, unless your soul commands you to write otherwise. The last clause is important, because for Ueland writing is not a craft or a tradition or even an art, but an expression of the divine spark within oneself. How could I describe a creed that sounds so positive (be yourself! follow your bliss!) as discouraging? Because Ueland’s readers, beginning writers who thought they were faced with the problem of how to learn a new art form, now find that they are faced with the problem of their souls:

Tolstoi, Ibsen, Blake, Goethe, Thomas Mann and all great men, known or unknown, famous or obscure,—they are great men in the first place and so they cannot say anything that is not important, not a single word. Their writing, their art is merely a by-product, a cast-off creation of a great personality.

This is a dangerously servile way to think about other people, and a fatally arrogant way to think about oneself. Whereas to think both of one’s own writing and the writing of others as an art rather than an expression of self is much more usefully humbling, even as it is a legitimate goad to ambition. Tolstoy managed to write great novels—and some not-so-great stories and essays—while bearing a more troubled soul than Ueland seems to have known; and it’s hard, complex, intellectual work writing prose as superficially simple as Tolstoy’s.

Unfortunately, if you come into Ueland’s class without first being a great soul, or, the next best thing, a “little servant girl” (as she describes one of her students) or someone with a “poetic” ethnicity (“She was Irish and had a soft and very beautiful voice. That, I saw at once, meant that she could write too”; “And see how all people in Mexico are such great artists! The poorest Mexican cannot touch any work without making it lovely”), then you’re probably not going to make it as a writer. Today’s calls to abolish the teaching of difficult and complicated literature—in which our current activists were preceded by Tolstoy’s manifesto, What Is Art?—are in perfect continuity with Ueland’s own patronizing identitarianism and hatred of the aesthetic, despite the dead-white-maleness of her canon headed by Blake and Tolstoy and also including Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Van Gogh, and her friend and contemporary Carl Sandburg (who impartially called this “the best book ever written about how to write”).

While our current canon-smashers claim only to want to diversify the curriculum on unimpeachable gender and race grounds, it’s hard to imagine people who claim that students should be exposed only to the contemporary, relevant, and transparent approving the dense modernist symbolism of Ralph Ellison or the non-linear psychological and historical involutions of Toni Morrison. We shouldn’t let such arguments fool us: in the name of an equitable state wherein they plan to remain first among equals, these progressive managers want to rob everyone of magnificence, and Ueland, despite the superficial datedness of some of her references and rhetoric, is a prophet of such debased egalitarianism. To quote Theodor Adorno, trained in actual Marxism and not “progressivism”: “The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a classless one…” Moreover, there is the educational philosophy of the aforementioned Toni Morrison, which I believe I’ve quoted here before but which can’t be repeated too often:

I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give them the best there is to engage them.

Politics aside, what should you do if you want to write but don’t want to tailor your soul to some arbitrary standard of simple greatness? I recommend the reverse of Ueland’s advice. Instead of looking around and transcribing what you see, you might first turn your attention to your own favorite piece of writing and try to understand how the author did it. (There is no magic in seeing, any more than there is in “lived experience,” today’s preferred nostrum; we only have anything that could be called sights and experiences later, when we come to understand in retrospect the chaos we have beheld or endured. Ueland warns readers against describing from memory, whereas I warn against describing from anything else.)

Interestingly, Ueland devotes a whole chapter to “Why a Renaissance Nobleman Wrote Sonnets” despite her beloved Blake and Tolstoy’s anti-Renaissance stance; predictably, though, she thinks they did it to express themselves—

One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the nobleman knew and understood his own feeling better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the Italian or the English language was.

—while failing to mention that they were extensively schooled, multi-lingually, in rhetoric and poetics. The sonnets might have come easily, but they came after much instruction and much imitation of models. Imitation of models, not untrammeled self-expression, is the basis of education. It is the basis of individuation tout court, in fact, and our choices—in life as well as literature—are not between imitation and non-imitation, but between conscious active imitation and unwitting thoughtless imitation.

Contra Ueland’s bromides (“Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself”), you will achieve spontaneity and originality only after the deliberate absorption of your precursors; if you don’t study them consciously, you will only imbibe their influence passively, which will doom your “artless” compositions not to the expression of a primordial self but to a helpless and slavish belatedness. (There is no such thing, by the way, as an artless composition: language as such is artifice. Simplicity is often the most artificial style of all.)

Since the self-help genre’s advice-giving posture is as contagious as it is presumptuous, I’ll include a message to teachers as well as to budding writers. First, your students’ souls are neither your responsibility nor your business; if you think otherwise, you might be not a guide but a tyrant. Second, your students want the best, not condescension in the form of pandering oversimplifications. (And don’t raise the race-and-gender straw man please; I am not living in 1938, and as any of my regular readers will know, when I say “the best” I obviously mean Virginia Woolf and Nella Larsen and Derek Walcott and Kazuo Ishiguro, etc., etc.) If you think your students can’t understand the human relevance of material that isn’t immediately accessible to them, it might be because you haven’t done enough to explain it, not because they are too deprived to be addressed as myriad-minded adults.

After all that, I don’t mean to say If You Want to Write wholly lacks interest. Ueland is a great quoter, with an eye for memorable Blakean aphorisms (“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”) and poignant, telling anecdotes about her favorite writers:

Someone asked Ibsen how he happened to name the heroine of “A Doll’s House” Nora, and he said: “Well, her real name was Eleanora but they got to calling her Nora as a little girl.”

Her few points of practical advice—to describe the particular if you want to capture the universal; to allow ideas to come slowly and without dependence on chemical inducement—are worthwhile. The evidence of her students’ compositions, quoted at length, and compared unfavorably to selections from the fashionable magazines of the day, are instructive. Her students’ plainer, livelier style is superior to the still somewhat Victorian stiffness of the “slick” magazines; and while I wouldn’t base on this one fact an insupportable aesthetic theory about the plain style’s general superiority, it does provide context for Ueland’s judgments.

Her own manner of exhortation can transmit excitement to the reader, enough excitement at least to begin writing. Once the writer is embarked, though, I recommend guides willing to discuss or exemplify techniques and traditions in greater detail—Charles Johnson’s essay “A Boot Camp for Creative Writing” is a good if formidable place to start—rather than holding the very idea in contempt. As we’ve seen, contempt for techniques and traditions, a posture of patronizing naturalness or condescending egalitarianism, may mask a self-congratulatory hatred for far too many of humanity’s ambitions and aspirations.