“Brenda Ueland he dares you to write freely and recklessly, to never be afraid of making mistakes. “
Let’s cut right to chase here. I really enjoyed this book, it’s a charming read…but I’m not going to recommend it.
I first heard of it through a reddit thread that was discussing the best books to read on writing and the writing process. I’d never heard of it before but the people in the thread were really enthusiastic about it.
As the resident “how to” book lover, it wasn’t long before If You Want to Write was on my Kindle. So now I’m here to review Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.
This firs thing anyone reading If You Want to Write needs to know (and what I didn’t know going into it) is that, despite the title, this is not really a book about how to write. It’s more a…philosophical guide to the mindset Brenda Ueland believes you should have towards your writing. She even goes so far as to say that the reader can substitute the word writing for whatever your passion is, be it painting or playing the piano or baking.
Now, I did find this philosophical approach to be helpful; it’s uplifting and positive. Brenda made me feel better about my writing. She talks about how to ignore that insidious voice of self-criticism and just sit down and write. Which is great, and is the sort of advice I (all of us?) need to hear every single day. She talks about how, no matter what you write, everything you say is original and unique. She dares you to write freely and recklessly, to never be afraid of making mistakes.
I loved those bits.
At a glance…
The problem is that this book was published in 1938 and it really, really, shows. So much of the information that she gives, the generalisations that she makes about society (servants work hard, Mexicans are a thoughtful people?!) just read as horribly dated.
Brenda Ueland does dip into the psychological reasons why people struggle to write when we get to those parts…well, it’s psychology from the 1930s, and it’s not an insignificant portion of the book.
Brenda talks about how we shouldn’t feel the need to be anything other than our true self as we write. Which sounds good. Except, then she goes on to define when you are at your truest self and it turns out stimulants are to be avoided because you stop being your true self. Which means no more mainlining coffee when I write. Brenda doesn’t think I’m writing honestly when I do that. I…disagree.
She also talks about religion with the ease of someone from a different age: Jesus is an artist and the Holy Spirit is our sense of inspiration. She repeats that message quite a bit.
Now I’m not religious myself and if this was a modern book I probably would have stopped reading at this kind of Christian imagery, but I understand that things were different in the 1930s. You could casually slip Jesus into the conversation without anyone raising an eyebrow. Nowadays though it is sort of jarring, even though I know she’s not trying to convert me and that she’s using these words in a very benign way. Still, even though I was alright with it (and I’m sure most people would be), I wouldn’t want to recommend this to anyone else.
So, with all these negatives, why did I enjoy this?
Well, first of all because it is just relentlessly positive. Brenda believes in me. She believes in you. She urges all of us to sit down and try. Maybe that first book is going to be bad, but it doesn’t matter, because you’re going to write another two books. You’re going to keep on writing until you get better and you definitely will get better. Brenda believes that 100% and she desperately wants you to believe it too. You know, by the end of the book, I kind of believed her myself.
The thing that I found utterly charming about this book was Brenda’s use of quotations and her love of William Blake. Now, I didn’t know much about Blake before I read this book, but Brenda really convinced me that Blake was somebody who I should be looking up to as a mentor. The man worked all the time, he constantly wrote and painted. Most of his work was never published, because he didn’t work for fame or glory. He worked, he created, out of love, out of a boundless passion. That’s why he had the energy to continually work, and it’s also why Blake was, supposedly, an incredibly happy man.
Just to go back to Brenda’s use of quotations. She uses a lot of them! However many you’re imagining then you should treble it. And I loved it! A lot of the quotations are from William Blake, and a fair few from Vincent Van Gogh (probably not going to be a surprise to anyone, but Vince seems like a really dedicated guy). Brenda uses these little gems to underline her talking points and show you that all you need is the confidence to start writing honestly.
So, yeah, I enjoyed this book, I felt spurred to write more because of Brenda’s passion and her enthusiastic encouragement. I just can’t recommend it because, in so many ways, all that “good” comes with an awful lot of baggage.
Looking for some inspiration?!
The bookspry team wrote a book of writing prompts and it’s available now! Weird and wacky prompts to bust you out of that rut…or to distract you from your real work.
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