In preparation for a women’s writing group, I was lining up well-known teachers of writing, those with demonstrable approaches for developing a sustainable writing practice. I had Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, Anne Lamott, and Lynda Barry, all heavy hitters. I wanted to pull in one more but wasn’t sure who that might be.
Leaving Hannaford’s supermarket, I stopped to check out their used book bin and discovered her. There in the bin was a gently used copy of Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. I stood there staring in awe at this book, thinking: This is the missing woman from my lineup!
In her article “Lady of the Lake,” Alice Kaplan says of Ueland:
“Today people still go on about her—the eccentric feminist who played tennis in the nude, the legendary writer, the old Norwegian troll who climbed Pikes Peak in her 80s.”
What Kaplan and others say loosely captures Ueland: a woman born at the turn of the last century determined to live life by her own rules (not that it didn’t kick up a lot of internal conflict), one driven to challenge herself physically (for numerous reasons), and a writer who generously shared her discoveries, however messy, about her valiant effort to live a creative, meaningful life. Ueland offers golden nuggets: truths she has mined and polished through ongoing mental and physical acrobatics. (Literally. She liked to do flips, always challenging herself to do them better.) Her impactful writing is her gift to us.
Brenda Ueland was born in 1891 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to a Norwegian immigrant father and a suffragist mother. She was a middle child, number three out of seven, and it seems from day one, she was on a steady mission.
Kaplan describes an earlier slice of Ueland’s life trajectory:
“Brenda went by train to college in New York City and returned home in 1913 to start work in the newspaper business. In 1915, she left by train for New York again and stayed there for 15 years. She worked for magazines, lived a bohemian existence in Greenwich Village, took lovers, married and divorced, gave birth to a daughter, Gabrielle, and made a modest living as a freelance writer.”
Although this description omits some twists and turns, for Ueland was always on the move, overall, it captures that period of her life.
Ueland returned to Minneapolis in 1930 with her 9-year-old daughter. As a freelance, she churned out an assortment of articles for various publications, including radio shows. And it is back home, finally without fear she’ll be coerced into a more conservative mold, that she writes the two books for which she is best known: If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit (1938) and Me: A Memoir (1939).
An idea not embraced at the time, Ueland believed that everyone can write, that everyone has something interesting and important to say if they speak their truth. She labeled both listening and writing are as acts of generosity.
In her article If You Want to Write, Here’s the Book for You: In Praise of Brenda Ueland’s Prescient Feminist How-To, Susannah Felts says:
“If You Want to Write is a distant predecessor to modern creativity guides.”
While reading Ueland’s If You Want to Write, I constantly had to remind myself that this guide was penned over 80 years ago! In many ways, it feels current, but as Felts says,
“Perhaps it’s not that Brenda Ueland was ahead of her time, but that the desires and frustrations she spoke to are ancient and evergreen for artists.”
This may be true, but still, her “lifetime of feminist trailblazing,” and the title of one of her chapters, Chapter X: Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing, indicate that she was ahead of the curve, writing with an inclusive audience in mind. Ueland’s stance may be due in part to her mother, a politically involved advocate for women’s rights, yet one who still preferred to see her daughter playing a role in society acceptable at the time. This lone role of wife and mother is one that Brenda dabbled in, but unwilling to tame the wilder nature of herself, it never lasted long.
In If You Want to Write, Ueland encourages aspiring and struggling writers to strive for what we now refer to as the zone:
“I tell you this because it is the way you are to feel when you are writing – happy, truthful and free, with that wonderful absorption of a child stringing beads in kindergarten. With complete self-trust. Because you are a human being all you have to do is to get out truthfully what is in you and it will be interesting, it will be good”(52).
One thing Ueland believes helps creatives discover this place of clarity and truth is being on the literal move. As with many writers before her, she was an avid walker, but in the most aggressive sense of the word. For miles and miles, and in all weather conditions, and in Minnesota you’ve got weather! She explains that as you walk and what she calls moodle, revelations explode like amazing fireworks:
“And how do these creative thoughts come? They come in a slow way. It is the little bomb of revelation bursting inside of you. I found I never took a long, solitary walk without some of these silent, little inward bombs bursting quietly: “I see. I understand that now!” and a feeling of happiness”(45).
I often have this image in my mind now as I walk and ideas and connections occur to me; I envision these as colorful mini-explosions and I recognize that they do make me happy.
I recommend Ueland’s creativity guide. Again, from Felts,
“What’s surprising is how much her advice resonates in popular discourse on the power and pleasures of art-making, self-motivation, conquering fear, and living mindfully, authentically, intentionally. Were she with us still, you can imagine her employing the term ‘self-care.’”
Ah, right up my alley!
By reading Me: A Memoir, I learned much more about this woman, one I grew to care a lot about. In her memoir, Ueland, an avid diary and letter-writer, includes numerous excerpts she had diligently recorded throughout her life, and these add to the authenticity of her story.
Ueland’s If You Want to Write and her memoir are considered groundbreaking works:
“It’s interesting to note Kaplan’s take on Ueland’s “pioneering” second book, Me, a memoir…one of the first in an autobiographical tradition, now so central to American writing, that gives value to everyday experience. Ueland wants to account for her relationships, to describe her working life, her endless quest for discipline and for understanding the world. Me shows her lyrical gifts, her penchant for bragging, her self-absorption, and, in the end, a knowledge of her own shortcomings that endears her to the reader”(Felts).
For one so determined on finding her way to the center, the raw truth of things, it is surprising when Ueland admits her propensity for lying. (Read Kaplan’s article, subtitled “Brenda Ueland and the Story She Never Shared,” to discover more about this “shortcoming.”)
“And so I must speak of an ethical struggle that began in childhood and that is not over yet by any means. I became quite a liar. Though I don’t know whether it was that I was such a liar, or that I wanted to be truthful so much that I felt especially guilty about it. Anyway, this has been a lifelong struggle with me, to be truthful – an inward struggle and examination”(79).
Ueland was tough on herself, constantly challenging herself to do more, to be more, and this was also evident in her walking practice mentioned above:
“But I had to have my walk, so I would get up at five and walk to the Mississippi River, about six miles, and then take the street car. This walking had become an obsession. My whole spiritual vigor depended on it. And I was stern about it, because if you skipped one day, it was easy to skip many. For about ten years or more, to start on a walk I needed always a fierce momentum of will, overcoming much reluctance. But at last it became easy”(118).
But for all her cracking the whip on herself, she openly loved others and relished relationships. One such relationship was with Edith Lewis, her superior at a publication she was writing for:
“But our real boss on Every Week was Edith Lewis. She was the best boss I ever had, the most intelligent, the most just, the kindest and bluntest”(161).
Ueland goes on about Lewis’s unique and appreciated approach in the then field of journalism and recalls a particular visit with Lewis and her partner Willa Cather:
“Miss Cather and Miss Lewis lived on the top floor of an apartment on Bank Street and Miss Cather was beginning to be respected as a true artist. She was a young woman with a sturdy comeliness, clothed in dark velveteen. Her thick light brown hair was in smooth braids about her head and she had even white teeth and a strong, round, rosy face”(163).
My sister Theresa and I (partners in this Nasty Women Writers project) enjoy discovering these kinds of connections between nasty women, such as this one between Edith Lewis and Brenda Ueland. We add such discoveries to our Web of Women that we’re growing. Here’s an earlier post on this expanding web Invisible Connections: The Hidden Web of Women Writers and one about Edith Lewis and Willa Cather: Woman Writer Willa Cather: A Forever View of the Mountain
In 1922, Ueland birthed her daughter, and her musings about the change in her life as a result of this event are refreshingly honest, I think:
“Think of it! -not being able to leave the house, because of a baby…No more stepping out-of-doors again with a light foot. Never. I had that sad, queer, captured feeling which has never left me since. Never, never would I be free again”(201).
This honest reaction in no way means Ueland wasn’t an attentive and incredible parent, but that she was telling her truth and I imagine it resonates with many new parents, even if we’re convinced not to admit it!
But nothing held Ueland back or down for long, and it’s reported that her daughter, Gabrielle, grew to be a free spirit like her mother, a mother and woman who describes her days as:
“I worked every morning for four hours and then, bare legged and exposed as much as possible, I walked or ran around the Point, perhaps six miles, in the rain and snow, or in the bright salt sunshine. For at this time, I was trying to make myself perfect, an athlete, a beauty, an acrobat (I was working on handsprings, which I have never perfected), and a scholar. And I was going to do it by my Will, which was nourished by a piecemeal reading of Nietzsche. And sometimes on my walk I would memorize Shakespeare and other poetry. I learned many long pages of Hamlet. This affected me and stimulated me very much. I always respond to the Renaissance idea of a fine, brave, proud human being, a swordsman and a poet at the same time.
“I realize that this may sound as though I were very young, but I was thirty-six, which never once crossed my mind as being a less lively and comely age than twenty”(228).
The older I become, the more I admire anything labeled eccentric and it is true that Ueland lived what can be described as an eccentric existence. Yet, isn’t that what many of us strive for: to come closer to acting out our inner-nature? To reclaim ourselves and disperse our crystalized revelations for the greater good?
Thank you, Brenda Ueland, for sharing your exhilarating experience with us.
Brenda Ueland is a Nasty Woman Writer.
Felts, Susannah. “If You Want to Write, Here’s the Book for You: In Praise of Brenda Ueland’s Prescient Feminist How-To.” Literary Hub. 23 Oct 2015.
Kaplan, Alice. “Lady of the Lake: Writer Brenda Ueland and the story she never shared.” The American Scholar. 1 Sept 2007.
Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. 2nd ed., Graywolf Press, 1987.
Ueland, Brenda. Me: A Memoir. 2nd ed., Holy Cow! Press, 2016.