Monday, May 20, 2013

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

By Brenda Ueland

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

I had no knowledge of Brenda Ueland and knew nothing about this book when I picked it up. What caught my attention was the title, If You Want to Write, simply because my son Anthony and I were involved in a writing project, and I was looking for additional insights and suggestions. Honestly, I didn’t even know the author was dead and that the book had been written in 1938—seventy-five years ago at this writing. What a surprise!

It was indeed a pleasant surprise since it is a terrific book, and Ueland’s philosophy as both teacher and writer is spot on. Look at the following two paragraphs first as an example of her straightforward writing and, second, as an illustration of the philosophy by which she stands and promotes throughout her book:

"But I do not mean to tell you: ‘Look at this. Do like this. This is good, the other is bad.’ Not at all! I am saying that all people have this power in them to write greatly and well when they express freely and carelessly what is true to THEM.

"If like most teachers and critics I just said: ‘Now this is really good! Study this!’ and praised it to the limit, then you would try to write like it, and then it would not be any good at all. No, write from yourself" (p. 77).

Now, that is excellent teaching, and one of the first things you will notice in this book is how many examples of great writing Ueland offers readers. It is clear—just from the examples she chooses—that she truly does have an eye for scintillating prose.

In my book, Public Speaking Rules—All You Need for a GREAT speech! I offer readers the fundamentals—the nuts-and-bolts rules necessary for giving a great speech—but then (unlike many rule books!), I offer readers Chapter 12, "Break the Rules!" I’m certain Ueland would agree that "Rules give beginners guidance; exceptions to the rules make ‘greatness."—the quotation used to begin my Chapter 12. Just as Ueland’s delightful book, Public Speaking Rules is designed to motivate, encourage, and inspire. That is why I found her book so engaging: We are both operating from exactly the same base.

One of the reasons why Ueland’s book has been so successful and why so many love it so much, is captured in the final paragraph in chapter 9 (and underscored throughout the book, to be sure), "But thousands and thousands of people, all people, have the same light in them, have their own creative power within, if they would only come to see it, respect it, and let it out" (p. 79). That is not only a powerful incentive for any reader, it is motivational, encouraging, enlightening, and, too, inspirational. Look at the last word of the subtitle to the book: Spirit. This is a book about freeing your spirit.

What is not thought about nor captured in most of the reviews of this book, is how it pushes readers to sit down and write. Ueland is so convinced we all have the creative ability to do it, and her instructions are so down-to-earth and specific, and her examples are so within the reach of each of her readers, it just makes you WANT TO write. It emboldens you to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard simply because she assures you that the tools are there waiting for use. Not only are they within reach, but they are ready to be used as well. Useland writes, as her final sentence of the book, "And if it [this book] has given you the impulse to write one small story, then I am pleased" (p. 156).

You would think, as a writer for over forty years, that I would find little here that is new—that there would be little here for experienced writers. And you would be wrong! Writers—any writer, just ask one—are always looking to grow, develop, and change within or as a result of their craft. Just look at the amount of time any athlete spends in practicing. Tiger Woods, the world’s number-one golfer at this writing (March 29, 2013), talks about how he improves his swing, or perfects his putting, and he always has coaches alongside to give him advice and counsel—and tweak his already well-honed skills. Learning is an on-going process that is fueled by awareness, perception, openness, investigation, research, intuition, scrutiny, meticulous dissection, and good judgment. Ueland is the coach I want on MY sidelines! She is gentle not brutal, understanding yet challenging, sensitive although demanding, and tough yet inspiring.

The following passage, among many to be sure, is what makes this book great:

"But always remember that the true self is never a fixed thing. You can never say: ‘Good. Today I find at last what I am really like: splendid type!’ You cannot say that because the true self is always in motion—like music, a river of life, changing , moving, failing, suffering, learning, shining. That is why you must freely and recklessly make new mistakes—in writing or in life—and do not dwell on them but move on and write more. . ." (p. 99).

The dozen ideas (pp. 154-155) Ueland offers readers "if you want to write" are worth the price of the book alone because they contain the kernels of greatness, but not only that, "Because," in Ueland’s words, "there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money" (p. 155). This book is a precious jewel which, like any priceless gem, can be treasured over and over, not just for the wonderful advice, the excellent examples, but for the inspiration to write.


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