If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland

I recently finished reading a small book I picked up at the Bethlehem Public Library’s Book Sale: one of those unexpected titles I never would have pursued, but it somehow found me.

There were some charming parts, and I especially liked when the Author shared some of her students’ writing with commentary to help illustrate some of her points or suggestions. She was a big advocate for writing freely and regularly without being too critical of yourself as you go along. She talked about just telling stories the way that you would tell them to a friend, rather than trying to be too literary.

There were also some strange parts. For example, when she was discussing Spirit in writing, I got pretty lost in some of her reasoning, but overall, I’m glad that I read the book.

There was one passage that I found particularly interesting, and I thought I’d share it here with you (or at least a few snippets of it). The reason it struck me, I think, is because I’ve often felt like this–that I tend to struggle sometimes with being believably removed from my characters:

. . . if you are writing stories,  you must never be an advocate of your characters. Never be saying (in so many words), ‘See what a fascinating heroine this is, how adorable: how fine and brave the hero!’ . . . the trouble is the more you try to say your heroine is wonderful, the more your readers will look at her dubiously. They know you are lying in a way, that you really don’t see her clearly in your imagination as an actual and living person, but you are trying to put her over on them; you are a propagandist for her.

In ‘The Possessed’ Dostoevsky describes a famous writer, one of the characters of the novel. Dostoevsky says:

He described the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, of which he had been the witness, and how he had seen the drowning people saved and the dead bodies brought ashore. All this rather long and verbose article was written solely with the object of self-display. One seemed to read between the lines: ‘Concentrate yourselves on me. Behold what I was like at those moments. What are the sea, the storm, the rocks, the splinters of wrecked ships to you? I have described all that sufficiently to you with my mighty pen . . . Look rather at ME, see how I was unable to bear the sight and turned away from it. Here I stood with my back to it, here I was horrified and could not bring myself to look; I blinked my eyes–isn’t that interesting?’

I have so often been troubled by my own stories, especially those I wanted to be particularly pure Art, earnest and uncompromising. All the characters in them (except the villain) would seem to be ME and it might read like this:

‘I love you,’ said Brenda Ueland to Brenda Ueland.
‘I love you too,’ Brenda answered shyly, with a sincere look in her fine, strong face.


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