If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland


Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.

Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express. 

Everybody is Original, if he taels the trust, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be. Jennings at John Hopkins, who knows more about heredity and the genes and the chromosomes than any man in the world, says that no individual is exactly like any other individual, that no two identical persons have ever existed. Consequently, if you speak or write from yourself you cannot help being original.

The most modest and sensitive people are the most talented. 

You must practice not perfunctorily, but with all your intelligence and love. 

The only way you can grow in understanding and discover whether a thing is good or bad, Blake says, is to do it. “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse enacted desires.”

Van Gogh said: “We take beautiful walks together. It is very beautiful here, if one only has an open and simple eye without any beams in it. But if one has that it is beautiful everywhere.” 

You will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will need understand him unless you try to write his story. 

I understood that writing was this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it. 

The great artists like Michelangelo and Blake and Tolstoy—like Christ whom Blake called an artist because he had one of the most creative imaginations that ever was on earth—do not want security, egoistic or materialistic. Why, out never occurs to them. “Be not anxious for the morrow,” and “which of you being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?” So they dar to be idea, i.e., not to be pressed and duty-driven all the time. They dare to love people even when they are very bad, and they dare not to try and dominate others to show them what they must do for their own good. For great and creative men know what is best for every band in his own freedom so that his imagination (if can also be called the conscience or the Holy Ghost) can grow in its own way, even if that way, to you or to me, or to a policemen or churchgoers, seems very bad indeed. 

“…Honor they father and thy Mother”… the active, willing, do-it-now man thinks and makes note of this daily, sets his jaw, and thinks he does honor them, which he does not at all, and which of course his father and mother know and can feel, since nothing is hidden by outer behavior. The idle creative man says: “Honor they father and mother.”… That is interesting… I don’t seem to honor them very much… I wonder why that is?” and his imagination creatively wanders on until perhaps it leads him to some truth such as the fact that his father is a peevish and limited man, his mother unfortunately rattle-brained. This distresses him and he puzzles and things and hopes again and again for more light on the subject and tries everything his imagination show to him, such as being kinder or controlling his temper; and perhaps he comes to think: “Is it they who are peevish and boring, or is it just that I, being a small man, think so?” And he goes on and seeks and asks for the answer with his imagination. And who knows, in time he even may come to understand what Chris did (who as I said was one of the most imaginative men who ever lived and whose life was fiercely and passionately directed against following mechanically any rules whatever): how if one is great and imaginative enough one can honor and love people with all their limitations. So you see the imagination needs molding,—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as walking mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.

The great mystic philosopher Plotinus said about this: “So there are men too feeble for contemplation.” (This is his word for what I call the imagination.) “Being unable to raise themselves to contemplation from the weakness of their Soul, unable to behind spiritual reality and fill themselves with it, but desiring to see it, they are driven to action that they may see that which they could not see with the spiritual eye.” 

Good ideas come slowly, and that they more clear, tranquil and unstimulated you are, the slower the ideas come but the better they are. 

He lives in the present. That is why children enjoy looking and listening so much. Why they are such wonderful mimics of grown-ups. They have tremendous concentration because they have no other concern than to be interested in things. Later they are trained to force concentration and become as imaginatively muddy and uneasy as the rest of us. 

What you write today is the result of some span of idling yesterday. 

For some time eery day (if only for a half hour, though two hours is better and five is remarkable and eight is bliss and transfiguration!) before your typewriter,—if not writing, then just thoughtfully pulling your hair. If you skip for a day or two, it is hard to get started again. In a queer way you are afraid of it. It takes again an hour or two of vacancies noodling, when nothing at all comes out on paper; and this is difficult always because it makes us busy, efficient Anglo-Saxons with our accomplishment-mania, feel uneasy and guilty. 

If we don’t act at all (express our imaginings either in work or a changing personality, so that we can learn and think again something better) we certainly rot. 

People who try to boss themselves always want (however kindly) to boss other people. They always think they know best and are so stern and resolute about it they are not very open to new and better ideas. 

I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten,—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.

The creative impulse was working innocently, not egoistically or to please someone, an instructor, say, who threw in the anxious questions: is it art? has it balance? design? and so on. The creative power was working innocently, each child simply trying to show in paint what she saw and felt. 

Very forceful, active men might say that acting makes them think better. But if they took more time for idling and thinking, perhaps, the Imagination would show them much greater actions than the ones they are engaged in. 

In the famous essay called “What is Art?” (which made everyone very angry) Tolstoy said something like this: Art is infection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. And the infection must be immediate or it isn’t art. If you have to puzzle, timidly over a picture or a book, and try, try to like it and read many erudite critics on the subject so that you can say at last: “Yes, I think I really do begin to understand it and see that it is just splendid! Real art!” Then it is not Art. 

Great art, said Tolstoy, is when a great man who has the highest life-conception of his time tells what he feels. 

Besides true art, said Tolstoy, there is a great deal of imitation art, pseudo-art. This is because rich people are bored and idle and must be entertained, and so they pay artists to amuse them by making art for them. But since art must be truly felt and cannot be willed, since it has to generate spontaneously in the artist’s inner self, there comes into existence a lot of willed, brain-spun pseudo-art. And one common kind of pseudo-art is that which pretends to be very hard to understand, subtle and abstruse, so that only a very exclusive few, a few extremely cultured people, can understand it. And so there arises critics to explain art. But critics, Tolstoy said, are people especially incapable of knowing what art is because “they are erudite, that is perverted, and at the same time very self-confident individuals.” All that erudition, weighing, measuring, reasoning and comparing, spoils these critical people, makes them opaque and atrophied sop that they cannot feel any more with the immediacy of a child or of a plain people or of poets. 

An artist’s work is a thing that cannot be interpreted or explained by words because it is infection.

There is no sense in writing anything I don’t feel. You must not think of a feeling as necessarily a violent and terrific thing,—“harsh, dry sobs,” and so on. Boredom is a feeling, lassitude is a feeling, sleepiness is a feeling as well as rage. And so from now on, if you want to write, for example, about a man who is suffering from boredom, just quietly describe what your own feelings are when you have been bored. This is all you have to do. Don’t say the boredom was “agonizing, excruciating,” unless your own boredom was, which is doubtful. That is all you have to do to infect, to convince your reader, to make him think it is a good description, because it seems true. 

In fiction, Chekhov said, you can pose a question (about poverty, morality, or whatever it is) but you must not answer it. As soon as you answer it the readers know you are lying, i.e., forcing your characters to prove something. 

Instead of living a sedentary, literary life, assiduously polishing sentences and cultivating a prose style, he lived a great life with supernatural standards for himself of courage, suffering, endurance and honor. And so his book is better writing than the books of a century of merely literary men. 

Write every day, or as often as you possibly can, as fast and carelessly as you possibly can, without reading it again, anything you happened to have thought, seen or felt the day before. 

The secret of being interesting is to move along as fast as the mind of the reader (or listener) can take it in. Both must march along in the same tempo. That is why it is good to read your writing aloud to yourself. As soon as your voice drags, cross that part out. 

When you write an article. Do not worry about the whole. Write what is next, the idea that comes now at the moment. Don’t be afraid. For there will be more coherence and arrangement in your thoughts than you think. 

For I know that the energy of the creative impulse comes from love and all its manifestations—admiration, compassion, glowing respect, gratitude, praise, compassion, tenderness, adoration, enthusiasm. 

“You are kind to painters,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “and I tell you the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take its place later. What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth. Therefore, when you write, speak with complete self-trust and do not timidly qualify and feel the ice of well authenticated literary usage and critical soundness—so afraid when you have finished writing that they will riddle you full of holes. Let them. Later if you find what you wrote isn’t true, accept the new truth. Consistency is the horror of the world. 

All of it does not amount to very much and little is worth remembering. 

Why should we all use our creative power and write or paint or play music, or whatever it tells us to do? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it, i.e., share it with others?