If I had to choose one book for my desert island writing retreat, it would be Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Fear and laziness are sent packing when I read her words.
“Everybody Is Talented, Original, and Has Something Important To Say,” she announces right off as the headliner title of Chapter One. She goes on to say how this originality, talent, and truth comes out when each of us pays careful attention to the world around us and writes from that unique perspective.
Brenda Ueland was born in Minneapolis in 1891 in a home overlooking Lake Calhoun. She returned to Minneapolis after a sojourn in New York where she worked as a journalist and was part of the Greenwich Village bohemian crowd (John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill). She continued her work as a writer, editor, and teacher of writing. I remember seeing her feeding the geese around Lake Harriet, another Minneapolis city lake. She was a swimmer and an avid walker, sometimes walking nine miles a day. She died at age 93, in 1985.
About her classes at the Minneapolis YWCA, she writes in the preface to the second edition: “I think I was a splendid teacher, and so did they.” Her words capture her spirit and honesty. She is captivated by the unique lives of her students. She listens and encourages them to keep writing. “The only good teachers are those who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny, whose attitude is: ‘Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.’ ”
I remember a Vietnam vet in one of my classes many years ago. He stopped by my office to ask if I would read a poem he had written. “I carried this around with me all during the war,” he said. He took out his billfold and unfolded a single sheet of paper that had been folded and re-folded so many times it almost fluttered away in the air.
He read this poem that compressed all his feelings, everything about the war and loss, into a few lines. Then he folded and re-folded it and put it back in his billfold. The poem contained all his anguish, pain, love. We talked about his poem, and I told him how amazing it was. “Now write more,” I said. “Tell me as much as you can remember.” His poem contained more than any one poem could contain. It was breaking at its seams for all the power it held in its folds.
Sometimes this happens to us as writers.
We write one story, one poem, one essay, and then carry it around with us. We take it to every writer’s group or class we join. Maybe we change or add a few words here and there. What would happen if we said to ourselves, Yes, I wrote that. Good. Now I’m going to write more? Imagine someone who wants to hear it all. Sure, we can go back and revise, but don’t get stuck in that one place. Keep pushing out, taking risks, Write about the day you are living in. Tell me how the fish darted away when you swam in the lake with your eight-year-old granddaughter. Tell me about your friend who is dying. Tell me about what it’s like to go bald or to let your hair go silver. I want to know.
I started off this entry talking about a desert island. Sometimes I do feel as if I’m stranded on such an island of my own making. I question how I got there and why I ever wanted to write anyway. Brenda Ueland finds inspiration from many great writers, artists, and composers (Blake, Chekhov, Van Gogh, Mozart) as she makes her case: we are not alone. And if we look around, it isn’t a desert island—more an oasis.
One of the reasons Carol and I are creating this website and writing blogs together is because we believe we writers need each other.
Carol and I could never have done the anthology alone. When one of us would be ready to throw in the towel, the other would be all happy and up beat. When one was busy, the other one took up the slack. We have done all this through writing. We have only seen each other in person twice: once when we met in Russia and once when we met in North Carolina. Carol’s blogs inspire me; she inspires me. I hope together, with other writers (Brenda Ueland, Susan Surman, Molly Peacock, Shirley Deane), our students, and other creative people (Mrs. Delany, Ruth Hodges, Lenore Latimer), we can create an oasis. We can say to at least one other person, “Tell me more.”
(In my next blog, I’ll talk about what we do after we’ve written pages and pages. Where does all that writing go? But first we have to write!)