I Used To Think I Cordially Disliked Reading Books About Writing
I’ve discovered that this is not true.
I dislike reading books about writing which tell me how to write.
I am, however, apparently highly agreeable to books about writing which tell me that I don’t have to listen to those other books which tell me how to write.
In fact, not only that I don’t have to listen, but that I emphatically should not, and should write from myself — what is true, and free, and me-like (in my own words; look at me being all delightfully rebel like this and saying things how I want).
Let me back up a moment and explain.
I’ve gotten rather disillusioned with how-to writing advice in general, over time, because it feels too much like I’m being told what to do with my stories and how to bend them into a “proper shape” which they may not naturally want to bend into. It stifles me, fills me with doubt, and crushes my spirit and creative light — that delicate fluttering-wing flame of the artist inside a person, too easily snuffed by winds of doubt.
I recently read a book called “If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit” by Brenda Ueland, and it did the opposite, telling me something quite different: that it’s important to tell your story in a way that is you, and speaking of the dangers of critics/criticism/a critical way of thinking, instead focusing on love and truth.
It is rather a good feeling to read a book which says something different than the norm of the modern-day craft of writing. Effectively saying that my instinct all along has been correct — to write how I want and let the rules go hang (at least for the present).
I’m the writer, these are my stories, my blogs, my words, and if I can’t tell them like they want to be told . . . then who will? A lot of “rules” — the ten (more like ten thousand) commandments of Proper Writing? (Which all contradict each other anyway and constantly change.) No. I don’t think so. Following a lot of made up “rules” does not a Great Novel make.
I think I’ll pause here before I go further, and have a footnote. But I’ll have it right here instead of making you scroll all the way to the bottom of the post, which is a bother, and I want this one to actually be read. (Besides, who says feet can’t occasionally put themselves up to get comfortable?)
Footnote: If This Post Is Not For You
If you are one of those writers who likes to write according to the rules, if that is your calling, by all means: go for it! This is not to pull you down, to tell you you are doing it “wrong.” Because whatever is right for you is right for—you guessed it—you.
This post is only to say that for anyone who, like myself, has felt stifled and condemned by rules and critical thinking, that there is another way—that we can be free!
But, as Brenda Ueland often stresses in her own book which I am speaking of (and in her own footnotes) — whenever she’s telling us how to do something, she adds that if you want to do it the other way, then do it that way!
Neither Brenda nor myself are trying to tell you that our way is the best and only way. So if you disagree with this post, if you feel the rules should be followed, if you enjoy being a critic because you like to analyze, etc., then be that way! That way is you, and you are free to be it. :)
I just thought I would say that. I’m not trying to be critical and say that if you’re trying to follow rules, you’re doing it wrong—no, I’m only trying to say that this book allowed me to see a new and freeing way for ME to live, and if this post is not for you, I will not hold it against you, and I hope you will do the same. :)
(End of footnote.)
“If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit” by Brenda Ueland
It was originally published in 1938, and I found a reprinted copy from the 1980s at a library book sale, because I had once seen the book highly spoken of, which made me curious. As I said, I’m wary of books on writing, and writing advice in general, since it tends to leave me jaded, depressed, and rather defiantly angry (none of which are feelings I enjoy).
But I tried this one out . . .
And I’m so incredibly glad that I did.
THIS BOOK, THOUGH.
Brenda Ueland talks of writing creatively with joy and truth and freedom, the way that is YOU, instead of “intellectualizing,” i.e., in her wonderful words: “primly frowning through your pince-nez and trying to do things according to prescribed rule as laid down by others — and bearing in mind a thousand things not to do.”
Bless this woman and her counter-cultural thoughts from 1938.
It was so freeing to read a book that was focused on love and creativity and discovering your true writing self (instead of focusing on what to do, what NOT to do, and various “rules”). It was the positive, not the negative. It was freedom, not limiting options. And it filled my soul with a joy and a freedom in thought and writing that I’ve not felt in a very long time.
I just felt so inspired reading this, and gladdened that somewhere, sometime (in this case nearly 80 years ago… ahem) agreed with me and thought similar things to ones I’ve felt deeply but almost unconsciously for a long time, particularly about being critical and about so-called writing rules—and thought them deeply enough herself to write a book about it, which was simply a pleasure to read. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I devoured this one.
But I will let this book speak for itself, in its own words, before wrapping up my thoughts on all of this.
QUOTES BY BRENDA UELAND FROM “IF YOU WANT TO WRITE”
“Since our wish to create something is the life of the Spirit, I think that when people condemn what we do, they are symbolically destroying us. Hence the excruciatingly painful feeling, though to our common sense it seems foolish and self-centered to feel so badly.”
“But inspiration only dies down because the theoreticians, the horses of instruction, begin to dissect, analyze and then codify into rules what yesterday’s great artists did freely from their true selves.”
“This is why I don’t like critics, whether they are English professors, or friends, or members of one’s own family, or men of letters on literary reviews. It is so easy for them to annihilate us, first by discouragement [footnote: Remember that discouragement is the only illness, George Bernard Shaw says.] and then by shackling our imagination in rules so that we cannot work freely and well on the next thing.”
“It is because of the critics, the doubters (in the outer world and within ourselves) that we have such hesitancy when we write. And I know the hesitancy just mars it. It does not make it better at all.”
“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. Compare the tenderness of great artists with the attitude of critics toward other men.”
“I wish I could show you why I object to critics and why I think they do harm and stifle and obstruct all creative power. It was William Blake who revealed this to me. ‘What we so often call Reason,’ Blake said, ‘is not the Understanding at all but is merely derived from the experience of our five senses, derived from Earth and from our bodies.’ “You cannot do this,’ Reason says (and all those erudite critics) ‘because it did not work the last time. Besides, it was logically and scientifically established by so-and-so after plenty of experiments,’ says the rationalist, the materialistic scientist, the critic, basing all this on merely physical experiences and so shutting out the glories of their Vision, their Imagination, which is Divine and comes from God and cannot be weighed and measured by scientists, established and explained.”
“Of course I am sorry for them too. Because by encouraging the critic in themselves (the hater) they have killed the artist (the lover).”
I want to love. I don’t want to hate. I want to enjoy a book, not tear it down and put its flaws in a spotlight. “Look! Look! This is a bad thing!” No; if there is a bad thing, I may quietly point it out and move on to the good. I may heartily dislike—even hate—something in a book, because it is not the true good thing which I want it to be, but I take no pleasure in hating. Hating, criticizing, being critical… they do not bring me joy. They pull me down and darken my spirit and make me sad. Loving things and books and people and stories and characters—that does bring me joy.
Why do people so enjoy the creative surge of writing a new story, and instinctively do not like to turn their critic back on to edit it? We have so enjoyed being free to love and create and make art, that to be once more yoked with hate and critical thinking and rules, and the perceived need to bend our work of art to the will of others, is all the worse after such freedom. Loving and creating outweigh hating and criticism any day, at least in my book.
Light is greater than Darkness. Love is greater than Hate.
The bright original creative soul that is YOU is greater than any rulebook on “writing well.”
I want to love. And I want to be an artist, a writer, who loves—and creates out of that love, stories that come from my true self and from the desire to tell the truth and a story. I want to be a better writer, one who writes a story as well as I can, who does not fall prey to criticism from within or the kinds of rules that critics have made to shackle the creative writer into writing within a box according to a set of rules and what not to do.
More than anything (in the terms and imagery of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories”) I want to write and be a subcreator who takes leaves from the Tree of Tales and writes them into a story as best I can.
And so I say, if you want to write: Write.
Replace your inner critic, who hates, with your inner artist, who loves.
Go out and, in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Make Good Art.”
Do not be afraid.
Write what is you —
and do so with all the truth and love you have in you.