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If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
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If You Want to Write (1938)

by Brenda Ueland

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1,428305,274 (4.06)24
  1. 31
    Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (Z-Ryan)
  2. 00
    The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes (alexmuninn)
    alexmuninn: Courage to Write has a very similar message to Ueland's book (indeed, Keyes quotes If You Want to Write) but it was written in 1995 rather than 1938, so Courage to Write lacks the disturbing and dated racism of If You Want to Write.
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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
Brenda U is a writer's cheerleader. Wonderfully supportive, very encouraging. All that sticks in memory, aside from a general Brenda-inspired can-do feeling, is the fact that Brenda would encourage would-be writer's to eschew coffee or other stimulants. ( )
  evamat72 | Mar 31, 2016 |
Ueland, who taught creative writing for years and years, believes that anyone can become a writer, that we are all unique and all have stories to tell. The main message of this slim book is to turn off your inner critic, shut out all the critical voices in your life (teachers, parents, spouses, friends), and just write. You can apply her principles to any creative endeavour, not just writing -- her advice will also help painters, musicians, anyone creating, actually. She says the most important thing is to be truthful to yourself and don't try to please others with your creative project. A gabillion copies If You Want to Write have been sold, and readers have loved and praised this book for 80 years. Carl Sandburg said it is "the best book ever written about how to write."

Who can disagree with all that? It's the good part.

BTW, Carl Sandburg and her were friends, so make out of that what you will.

Now for my real opinion. For such a short book (179p), it's surprisingly repetitive. Ueland explains how she is one of those writers who hates the outline, which is fine . . . but if you're not going to outline, you really need to focus on the edit. She rambles along and uses footnotes on almost every page. The info in the footnotes could have easily been edited in to the text, or just discarded, as it added little. There were pages of her quoting William Blake, and Van Gogh, and she talks about "the Russians" a lot. By a lot, I mean way too much idolizing, not so much detail.

Here is an example of a typical passage that had me rolling my eyes: "Great art, said Tolstoi, is when a great man who has the highest life-conception of his time tells what he feels. (Tolstoi himself was one of those although he did not know it.) Then the infection is universal. Everybody understands it and at once.*
* I think Blake meant this same thing too, when he called Jesus and artist."

That just makes me scream for so many reasons. Even if one think that's an amazing thought (which it's not), it can be said so very much better.

Throughout the book she says "I hope to talk about that later," and I didn't keep track, but I don't think she ever did. I was convinced she didn't, in fact, when I got to the "outlines are a nightmare" section.

Here's another tidbit of wisdom from Dame Ueland: "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."

Oh, please.

I soldiered on, looking for the good bits amongst all her noise, but after a while, I realized that I had an image of this woman lecturing me with a pointed finger. It was rather uncomfortable, yet on I went. I noticed that she seemed pretty impressed with herself and all the fabulous advice she was sharing with little me, and then it struck me that the finger-wagging professor and morphed into Lady Catherine De Burgh. (shudder!)

Recommended for: Yes, many have found If You Want to Write inspiring. But her advice is not unique, and is better said elsewhere. If you are looking for an inspirational book about writing or creating, I suggest Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), Negotiating with the Dead (Margaret Atwood) or even On Writing (Stephen King).

Why I Read This Now: I like to buy books about writing more than read them. Thought I'd plow through the stack this year. Picked this one first because Ursula Le Guin (I think) recommended that it was the only writing book anyone needed. She was wrong.

Rating: one cranky tin star. ( )
11 vote Nickelini | Jan 31, 2016 |
This book started out as pretty much exactly what I needed to hear: forget what everybody else says and just write honestly. Friendly and direct and a bit quaint. And the first three quarters or so continued to be great. After that point, however, the hero-worship started to get old. I don't think Tolstoy, Chekov, and Blake are quite as infallible as Ueland clearly does. That aside, the rest of the book is charming and encouraging. ( )
  melydia | Nov 25, 2015 |
Although a few of Brenda Ueland's viewpoints are a bit culturally dated (If You Want to Write was first published in 1938), this is a real gem of a book for aspiring writers or writers who may need to unblock writer's block. It is not a practical guide to publishing (good thing -- otherwise this book would *definitely* be dated -- it was after all written nearly 80 years ago!) or how to plan plot, etc. -- in fact, she often says: just write, don't worry about the plotting until later -- but just a lot of feel-good "you can do it!" in there.

I really dislike highlighting in books, but this one I felt compelled to do so (in pencil; none of that neon yellow stuff).

Some of what Ueland says is intuitive, but still good reminders:

"Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be" (p. 4).

Ueland provides examples of "good" and "bad" writing (some her own, some her students' work -- she taught writing classes at a local YWCA for a time) and shares stories of how some students need to have their true self and/or life viewpoints shine through in her writing. The story of one of her students really stuck with me: this student was "...lame, a very fine, kind, gentle person. She worked very hard but never seemed to write anything good and alive" (p. 108). Ueland urges her to describe something just as it is, to look at it as how she sees it. The result is an excellent, but gloomy, piece and the self-depreciating student states that she doesn't like to write depressingly. Ueland realizes that "a lifetime of a kind of willed cheerfulness, because of her lameness perhaps, kept her from writing from her true self. 'I must be cheerful and optimistic. I must always look at the bright side of everything.' she was always saying to herself. But not when you write! If it is true cheerfulness, fine. But if it is willed cheerfulness and you always describe things as you think you ought to, --well, it will not be effective, that is all. Nobody will be interested or believe you" (p. 108-109).

That passage spoke to me -- I think by nature I am an optimistic person, but at the same time (for instance) it's hard for me to bring up challenges I've faced due to being deaf. Of course, Ueland does not mean that all disabled people are artificially optimistic, but she uses this woman's example to exhort that we must write what feels natural rather than what we feel we "should". As another example, she cites the naturally jolly person, who unsuccessfully writes serious material but becomes a much better writer when he allows himself to be more funny.

One more piece of advice from Ueland that I'd like to share for writers: "No, I wouldn't think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan it afterwards. You write it first because every word must come out with freedom, and with meaning because you think it is so and want to tell it. If this is done the book will be alive. I don't mean that it will be successful. It may be alive to only ten people. But to those ten at least it will be alive. It will speak to them. It will help to free them" (p. 168).

Good advice. That is not to say that the basics aren't important -- in fact I am currently reading a book on plots, settings, etc. -- but that we should not be bogged down with the construction first. Indeed, I hated outlines when we had to do them in English class before we could even start a paragraph on a writing assignment.

If You Want to Write is a book that I know I will refer back to again and again. Now go write something! ( )
  ValerieAndBooks | Aug 4, 2015 |
I have bought and given away too many copies of this book.

I love it too dearly to keep it to myself. ( )
  raynfall | Aug 1, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
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I have been writing a long time and have learned some things, not only from my own long hard work, but from a writing class I had for three years.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0915308940, Paperback)

For most, the hardest part of writing is overcoming the mountain of self-denial that weighs upon the spirit, always threatening to extinguish those first small embers of ambition. Brenda Ueland, a writer and teacher, devotes most of her book--published back in 1938, before everyone and their goldfish got their MFA's in creative writing--to these matters of the writer's heart. Still, the real gift of the book is Ueland herself: She liked to write, she didn't care what anyone thought, and she had a great sense of humor. You're simply happy to hang out with her.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:01 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

For most, the hardest part of writing is overcoming the mountain of self-denial that weighs upon the spirit, always threatening to extinguish those first small embers of ambition. Brenda Ueland, a writer and teacher, devotes most of her book--published back in 1938, before everyone and their goldfish got their MFA's in creative writing--to these matters of the writer's heart. Still, the real gift of the book is Ueland herself: She liked to write, she didn't care what anyone thought, and she had a great sense of humor. You're simply happy to hang out with her.… (more)

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