Last year, I read Dorothea Brand’s Becoming a Writer, a book that approaches some of the sticky underlying issues of why it’s tough for people to establish a writing life, and proposes an eminently sensible method for approaching one’s work.
This weekend past, I stumbled on another book on writing published in the 1930s, Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit. While Brand’s book is largely about developing the dual minds of a writer (the subconscious flow mode and the analytical/critical mode), Ueland’s is about the right of anyone to tell a story, cultivating the right motivations for doing so, and accessing what she calls one’s personal truth.
I don’t identify with Ueland’s spiritual values (though she is refreshing neutral in how she frames them), but her basic premises – that everyone has a right to write, has an original perspective from which to do so and should write for intrinsic happiness vs. external reasons – are not only reassuring, but kind of inspiring as well. I’m so in the habit of viewing my writing as a grand slog or a masochistic impulse, that I tend to overlook the parts of it that are genuinely satisfying. Sometimes that means that something’s come together neatly, or I realize that I have sincere affection for a character, or sometimes it’s just the pleasure of putting together words or phrases that capture whatever effect I’m going for.
The positivity of Ueland’s approach is rubbing off on me, at a much-needed juncture. I’ve been dreading the novel revision for so long, but it’s not so bad. I’m telling myself that the ordering and moving things around and testing the foundations of a possible new structure are perhaps even more exciting than the early generative phases. And I’m believing myself.
What is it about these women of the 30s? Brand and Ueland were so practical and accessible, so focused on the root issues of establishing a writing life (versus the painful overthinking of the post-MFA era), and they each have distinct, vivid voices. Reading Brand is like having a conversation with a trusted, no-nonsense aunt. Ueland is charmingly digressive, her pages littered with footnotes and parentheticals.
I often find myself dismissing my work as stuff no one is interested in reading (not untrue), but this sensation must have been worse for women of the 1930s, marginalized as they often were by their dicked counterparts. Perhaps it’s this phenomenon that led them to write for themselves and their own fulfillment and satisfaction. And really, is there any better motive? I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be lovely to make a living from novel writing, but I do believe that as a primary motivation, it’s unlikely to generate much in the way of art (coughNicholasSparkscough).