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Book Review: If You Want To Write

By Joel Frielander

If You Want to Write was originally published in 1938, and revised in a second edition in 1983. And even though this book is over 70 years old, I want to say up front that I think it’s the best short book on writing that I’ve ever read. In fact, I defy you to read this book—barely 160 pages—and not come away a better writer. And a better person.

If you love the way that writing isn’t really about writing at all, but about finding the truth in your life, then you will love this book. Brenda Ueland wants to teach every person she can to “free your thoughts and the genius that is in you.” She wants to show you how useful it is for writers to be idle, to let your imagination stretch its wings.

When you read the book, you don’t feel like you’re listening to Brenda talk to her students at the YMCA in Minneapolis 50 years ago, or in Greenwich village, where she was part of the Bohemian writers. No, she seems to be in the room, whispering in your ear.

Sometimes her voice comes right out of your own heart. She is telling you things you already know, but which you had buried under the need to make a living, or not appear to be a fool, or because you thought you were stupid or untalented. But Brenda Ueland knows better.

She is a fan of big, slow ideas. The kind that take time to develop, the ideas that anyone can have, yet few ever put down on paper. She knows, absolutely, that you have an authentic story to tell that no one else in the world could hope to get right, only you. She wants you to tell THAT story, in your own words.

Ueland knows about creativity, about how to quiet the monkey mind of doubt and disbelief, and how to open the door to joy and creative energy. You can get an idea of the book from some of the chapter titles:

“Everybody is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say”
“Be Careless, Reckless! Be a Lion, Be a Pirate, When You Write”
“Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing”

You might get the idea that If You Want to Write is non-stop cheerfulness, but it isn’t. The author knows the difficulty of staring at a blank screen, the terror that writers sometimes feel.

“All people have in them this power to write greatly and well, when they express freely and carelessly what is true to THEM.” Ueland teaches you how to do this in her book by showing you that’s it’s possible, as a writer, to simply get out of your own way, to stop “trying” to write and just let what you have to say come out, as messy as it wants to be.

The author shows this with lots of examples from the ordinary people who came to her classes. Carl Sandberg called this book “the best book every written about how to write.”

In a recent introduction Andrei Codrescu said the author “is one of those beings Allen Ginsberg called ‘Courage Teachers’ … her faith is contagious.”

Contagious is exactly the right word for the effect this book has on me. I cannot read it without actually feeling the current of energy that comes with inspiration of some kind rising up, demanding to be heard. Whether you think you’re a writer, or you think you aren’t, you should read it—you’ll be glad you did.

That’s my If You Want To Write review. So if you want to, you know what to do!

About The Author:

Joel Friedlander has helped many writers become self-publishers since the 1990s. He’s a book designer, a self-published author and blogs about publishing, book design and the indie publishing life at www.TheBookDesigner.com.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • TravelinOma April 10, 2010, 12:57 am

    At your suggestion, I got this book out to reread, and I’m loving it all over again. I’ve just been exploring your blog and I’m loving it, too.

  • Todd April 10, 2010, 6:45 am

    Nice review. I was having a conversation the other day with a coworker that writing is writing. His argument was that writers from 100 years ago couldn’t make it today. I told him that the classics would be classics then or now-a well written piece is timeless. I’ll see if I can find this one at the library. Thanks.

  • Robby G April 10, 2010, 7:49 am

    Though I do read books on writing, suprisingly, I’ve never heard of this one before. I like the review you gave, Joel, I’m going to look into it more and get to reading it when I have some free time. Also, I think your blog is perfect for people like me, writers looking to self-publish and market their books. Cheers.

  • ami April 10, 2010, 10:53 am

    Joel: nice review. I have this book at home, you’ve motivated me to pull it out and re-read it!

  • Joel Friedlander April 10, 2010, 4:04 pm

    Hey, Josh, thanks so much for posting this, I really appreciate it.

    TravelinOma, I’m glad you got the book out again, it’s quite a treasure. And thanks for stopping by my blog. I have a pretty strong focus on self-publishing, book design, typography and indie publishing, but most self-publishers are writers first.

    Todd, I hope you find it, it’s worth the trouble.

    Robby G, I had never heard of this book until about a year ago. i was in a writing workshop and the instructor brought a bunch of books for us to look through, and gave Brenda Ueland a big plug. Intrigued, I tracked it down and was really blown away by how modern the book seemed. Thanks!

    ami, glad to be a catalyst for anyone to spend some time with Brenda. She is both inspirational and educational.

  • Daisy April 10, 2010, 6:02 pm

    Just ordered it on Paperbackswap.com. Thanks for the recommendation! It sounds excellent and inspiring.

  • LaVonne Ellis April 11, 2010, 1:03 am

    OMG I had completely forgotten about this wonderful book I read it and reread it many years ago, back when I had dreams of writing great books. I didn’t write any books, but I did become a much better writer, thanks to Eueland. Thank you for reminding me of it. I think it’s time for another read.

  • Joel Friedlander April 11, 2010, 5:25 pm

    It’s really neat to be able to revive the memory of this book for people. I’m glad I discovered it, every time I read it I think I get more motivation to just “tell the story”!