Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It is only in walks that are a little too long, that one has any new ideas

I just finished the book If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. It's a classic on writing and the creative process, first published in 1938. I'd picked the book up a few times but could never get myself to start it. Although I love classic literature, I try to avoid any how-to books that were written before World War II. And this lady was old. According to her bio, Ueland lived a long and active life, but the picture of her on the book's jacket looks like it was taken after she died. Plus, the summary on the back cover throws out terms things like True Conscience, True Self, and our Center. So forgive me if I didn't think I could get a fresh take on writing from this dated book.

But yes, to save you the suspense: I was wrong about the book. Very wrong. As you'll see, I got a lot out of it.

The book starts by saying that everyone is creative and talented in some way. This sounds hokey but it's true. Whether or not you consider yourself creative now, you no doubt did something creative as a child. You lost yourself and produced something imaginative and original, not worrying all along if it was art or it was good. And, consequently, it was good. Do you think we lose this ability? No, it should only grow.

We don't lose this creative power, but it often gets beaten down early in life by criticism, and by the creeping anxiety over whether one's work is "good." Ueland contends that if you write from your true self and not from the self you think you should be, you cannot help but be original and interesting. Focus not on whether your work sounds like Shakespeare, but on what you see, what you feel -- the picture and depth of the story in your mind. If you can truly see it, you can write it. Let's say you find that your description of a character is cliche and uninteresting. Don't strive to find better words; try instead to conjure a clearer image of the character in your head, and the words will follow. If you've ever kept a journal, you know what I mean. Whenever I look back at one of my travel journals with cold objectivity, as if was written by someone else, I've been pleasantly surprised at some insight, some passionate statement I'd made. And I know that at that point, I was only writing what I wanted to, what burned most incandescently in my mind, an idea that was formed not as I sat down to write, but during another time, a quiet time, while waiting for a train perhaps. These thoughts are always a joy to read, because they are true and truly felt.

So screw those books on what NOT to write (and I've read several of them -- one of them, in fact, was called How Not to Write a Novel). Holding these books in your head while trying to write is like stepping up to a golf tee with a huge water hazard on one side. You're aiming to hit the ball down the fairway, but what you're really focusing on is not hitting the ball into the water. I've lost a lot of balls this way.

The best part of Ueland's book, the part that struck me the hardest, is her theme that the imagination works slowly and quietly, and we have to be idle and open to channel it. The problem is that most of us don't sit still long enough to be creative. Even when we have a spare moment, we fill it with something, whether it's TV or the Internet or drinking or exercise. I'm particularly guilty of this. I can't eat a meal by myself without something to read. If I'm stuck somewhere more than two minutes without a distraction, I get anxious. Can we not just sit idle and take in the scenery? Ueland argues that it is in these quiet times that we form the ideas we'll draw from later -- to create something.

Much of the truly great art comes from people with time to spare. For example, Ueland says that some of the greatest literature was written by prisoners, because "prisoners suffer, think and are alone, so they have very much to say. Their relative yearning and power is shown by the fact that there is much more demand for great literature in prisons than outside. A librarian told me this."

To really observe, to be inspired, we have to be in the present. In our future-focused culture, we have a horrible time being in the present. Again, I am worse than most at this. Even if I am enjoying myself in the present, say, staring out at nature, I have to take myself out of the moment and validate it. I'll send a text message to let someone know I'm enjoying myself: "90 degrees. beach. beer. sucks to be you in the office;" or, "On top of Mt. Tam, no fog. view is amazing."

Another quote I identify with, given my current situation:

"We northerners are too much driven by the idea that in twenty years we will live, not now: because by that time our savings and the accrued interest will make it possible. To live now would be idleness. And because of our fear we have come to think of all idleness as hoggish, not as creative and radiant."

And finally, I could write on this topic forever, but Ueland puts it so well:

"Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong... that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people so often say: 'I am not creative.' They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time, lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas. Willing is doing something you know already, something you have been told by somebody else; there is no new imaginative understanding in it. And presently your soul gets frightfully sterile and dry because you are so quick, snappy and efficient about doing one thing after another that you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine."


  1. Your post makes me want to go hiking alone to a place with no people. Then just sit, and be. It has been many years since I have done that. I can identify very clearly with your words and the words of the author you quote. Thanks for sharing.

  2. So BCrawford does your mind just sit back and be creative on what you want to tell us (those reading your Blog) or does it just take you....and thus, you just know? Does your text message to one of us turn into an essay of your world or does your world drive the text message? Wow, profound...here...by myself...pondering...yes, that was a euphemism for whatever you want it to be....

  3. This is fantastic and why I love the practice of meditation and asana practice. I loved this blog, Brian and it makes me want to recommend to you - like - 40 books that artfully and beautifully corroborate everything you've pointed to in your post. Thing is, I am afraid that you might end up like i did - totally consumed and passionate about living my life this way and, well, as much as I LOVE my life (even the awful parts) I am not sure that I would wish it on just anyone.

  4. Great blog, Brian! We know that Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did some of their greatest thinking and writing while in prison, but I'm glad that you decided that quitting your day job was a better prospect than incarceration. :-)

  5. Each summer, when I am not preoccupied with obsessing over grading and lesson planning, I love to rediscover myself and my creative energies. I enjoy every minute of those two months. Every job should have forced time off...sabbaticals...where one is free to explore their inner creative forces.