"If You Want to Write: Thoughts About Art, Independence, and Spirit," Brenda Ueland

Pros: Impassioned, honest argument for why you can be a wonderful writer
Cons: Impassioned, honest, rambling mass of contradictory extremes
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 7/1/2002

The greatest attribute of “If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence & Spirit” – its fiery, impassioned, honest speech – is also its greatest weakness. But first, a little bit of background.

This book may have a current copyright date in the last couple of decades, but if you look back a little ways you’ll find that the original copyright date is 1938. Author Brenda Ueland is clearly an unusual woman for her times. Born in 1891, her father was a lawyer and a judge, and her mother was a suffrage leader. You can perhaps see how a book written by such a woman is going to be interesting and unusual!

The Beginning Writer

Ms. Ueland believes that anyone can write with honesty, from the heart, can write things that shine with life, if only they are encouraged in the right way. Certainly I have seen this opinion echoed in much more recent books, and there is some reason to believe that this viewpoint holds some merit. Like other authors I’ve read recently, she believes that while criticism has its place, that place is not at the beginning of the writing process, nor anywhere near it, lest we crush the enthusiasm of the budding writer.

She makes a good case for this argument, giving us plenty of examples from the classes she taught. In fact, my only complaint here is that she makes her case too often, for too long, and with too many examples. She rambles. She repeats herself. She includes long passages from students’ work, some of which are bound to be uninteresting to the reader.

Honesty, Enthusiasm, and Inspiration

Ms. Ueland believes that honesty (writing from your truth) and enthusiasm are the main ingredients of inspiration. In some ways she demonstrates this quite nicely. She’s so enthusiastic, and so obviously speaks from her truth, that it’s hard not to like her even when she’s making points I disagree with. On the other hand, sometimes her intense enthusiasm for extreme viewpoints makes it hard to take her seriously. It also seems to lead her into all sorts of contradictory statements. She insists that critics are bad, for example, and that you should not say anything bad about someone’s writing, and then she rails away against certain bad writers!

Who Is This Book For?

I think this book was meant to be for the beginning writer. However, I would not recommend it for the beginning writer. There are too many extreme viewpoints in here that are likely to cause you problems if you absorb them before having the experience to know which ones are reasonable for you and which ones aren’t. I think a little experience with writing (and the writing industry) is necessary before reading this book, oddly enough.

However, there are still two groups of people for whom this book is useful. First, writing teachers, particularly those who will be teaching beginners. They should be able to sift through the material in this book to find some very useful things to teach their students. Second, experienced writers who need a little reminder about enthusiasm, honesty, and passion. It can be nice to see things from a rather different viewpoint now and then, particularly if you aren’t entirely satisfied with where you are right now in your career.


This book is particularly interesting for the inadvertent perspective it sometimes gives on modern matters. For instance, I often hear people complain that in the last decade or three, people have become too ambitious, too hurried, too materialistic. It’s fascinating to see that same concern reflected in her era – in 1938. I guess the urge to hurry up and accomplish something isn’t so new after all!

Perhaps even more interesting is listening to Ms. Ueland rail away against modern entertainments that rot the mind – no, not TV, but newspapers and detective stories! It’s fascinating to see how the latest entertainment becomes the evil of each new era. I also find it interesting that, back in 1938, Ms. Ueland was teaching using the method of free-writing, even if she didn’t name it that.

In All…

The beginning and end of the book are the best parts. The beginning is impassioned and enthusiastic and it makes its arguments well. The very end hearkens back to this, particularly with its summary list of Ms. Ueland’s main points (which you might need by the time you get to the end!). Her extreme hero-worship of certain artists and authors sometimes gets in the way of her message, particularly in the middle of the book, where she most rambles and contradicts herself. This is where you’ll find yourself putting the book down the most often.

Yet there is something very valuable in this book. It is filled with the same fiery enthusiasm it seeks to spark in others. It makes some interesting points, and if you have some experience you should be able to put aside the ones that aren’t going to help you. Certainly it contains some wonderful suggestions for ways in which you might encourage others to write, and for a teacher, that could be a wonderful thing.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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