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If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit Paperback – May 14, 2010
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For most, the hardest part of writing is overcoming the mountain of self-denial that weighs upon the spirit, always threatening to extinguish those first small embers of ambition. Brenda Ueland, a writer and teacher, devotes most of her book--published back in 1938, before everyone and their goldfish got their MFA's in creative writing--to these matters of the writer's heart. Still, the real gift of the book is Ueland herself: She liked to write, she didn't care what anyone thought, and she had a great sense of humor. You're simply happy to hang out with her.
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For example, on page 129, Brenda begins with this gem: "I have come to think that the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person." However, she then ruins this thought by saying that by "better person" she does not mean a good person "for a great person often does things that so-called good people think very bad indeed." She does not explain what she means by a great person. But it seems to mean someone who is an independent thinker; an astute observer who does not accept social conventions or values that cannot be affirmed through their own inner wisdom. Brenda does not consider the possibility that one's inner "truth" can be faulty.
She relies upon quotations from the poet William Blake (one of her great people), entitling Chapter Five: "Sooner Strangle an Infant in its Cradle than Nurse Unacted Desires," based upon one of his noble sentiments about deferred gratification. Blake saw visions and heard voices which he believed were Divine rather than demonic. Brenda also prefers this interpretation and thus agrees with Blake's conclusion that our inner voice which says "Thou shalt" is our true conscience, while the voice that counsels "Thou shalt not" is the product of learned behavior and should be rejected. (See page 13 and footnote on page 35.)
Later, on page 174, the author reveals herself to be a ho-hum, garden-variety relativist. She writes, "If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take its place later. What is truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth."
The problem with all this philosophy is that the author tells the reader that they too must tend toward the amoral and asocial aspects of the psychopathic personality if they want to be an independent thinker and hence, a great writer. She teaches that the end justifies the means. Whatever gets the creative juices flowing is justified. And the stream of consciousness that gushes forth, whether polluted or pristine, is art. It is art because it is true to the inner self of the artist, who has learned to cast off all restraint, fear, and ambition. (I wonder what Brenda would think about the latest notions of modern psychology that radical independence is a less mature emotional state than cooperative inter-dependence?)
Finally, the author presents her view as an either/or scenario. Either you adopt the reckless and rule-less approach to writing, or you're creativity will be stymied. She does not allow for the option that one can be creative and value-oriented at the same time. Potential readers of this work should be aware that behind the enthusiastic pep talk there lurks a relativistic philosophy which may not correspond with their personal beliefs.
It is NOT professionally typeset. The layout is unacceptable. No Preface, nothing about the author! The chapters have no numbers and they start on a left-hand page! Footnotes appear in the copy. Spacing between every paragraph. They didn't use typographer's quotes. No italics, which is used for emphasis. It is just disgusting!
We have let so much quality slip past us to save to dime but you will regret this savings. I love this book and wanted to give several copies as gifts, but not to graphic designers! It is an insult to my profession.
It doesn't even have the original pub date -- 1938 -- in the nearly non-existent front matter. It reads: "First Printing, 2010" !! What the....!!? Did you know Ms. Ueland was born in 1891 and lived to be nearly 100? That info is not included in this version (surprise, surprise), but look her up online, learn about this woman, and you'll find her writings even more amazing.
I have purchased dozens of copies of this book for friends and family -- copies of the older Graywolf Press version which is lovely, classy. Matches the dignity of the writing.
I purchased this copy for a gift, and when it arrived and I looked it over, it wasn't fit to give. I am sending it back and just now bought an older copy from a third-party vendor via Amazon.
REAL publishers: here is your chance to pick up the rights to this book and do it justice!!
Here is my ORIGINAL review from January 2008 based on the Graywolf Press printing and true CONTENT presented beautifully: "If you're a writer, you must add this book to your shelf of writing references and "books to inspire." A true writer's book on writing. I've repeatedly bought this as a gift for other writer friends. Oh to have been a student in one of her classes. Bless you, Ms. Ueland...."