Brenda Ueland“Think of telling a story, not writing it.”

Brenda Ueland (1891-1986) is best known as a journalist and teacher of writing. She wrote radio scripts, covered the trial of Vidkun Quisling in Norway, and wrote several memoirs. The Norwegian Arctic explorer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 67 year-old Fridjtof Nansen fell deeply in love with the 37 year-old Bohemian writer whom he met one weekend in 1929 during an interview that became more. They exchanged love letters for a year–until his death in 1930. Nansen’s letters have been recently published Brenda, My Darling by Eric Utne, her step-grandson.

Her 1938 book  If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit is considered a classic in the  overcrowded field of books aimed at inspiring new writers. Ueland believed that new writers were most hindered by their fear that they weren’t good enough. Through simple assignments she found ways to release people’s creativity. The key, she felt, was to look inside and write of oneself and one’s experiences with “microscopic truthfulness.” So she might ask her students to write about something that happened in their childhoods or some event they were part of. She was also an avid feminist as the following excerpt from If You Want to Write shows:

…the lives of most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for themselves. Society and their husbands praise them for it (when they get too miserable or have nervous breakdowns), though always a little perplexedly and halfheartedly and just to be consoling. The poor wives are reminded that is just why women are splendid–because they are so unselfish and self-sacrificing and that is the wonderful thing about them!

But inwardly women know that something is wrong. They sense that if you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good. You make them physically more comfortable. But you cannot affect them spiritually in any way at all. For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate, or advise a husband or children or friends, you have to be something yourself. And how to be something yourself? Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.

So if you want your children to be musicians, then work at music yourself, seriously and with all your intelligence. If you want them to be scholars, study hard yourself. If you want them to be honest, be honest yourself. And so it goes.

And that is why I would say to the worn and hectored mothers in the class who longed to write and could not find a minute for it. “If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say: ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you. They would probably all become playwrights.”

What do you think? Do Ueland’s words still have meaning in women’s lives today? Are you a writer? Why do you think it is important to write?

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10 thoughts on “Brenda Ueland on why women should write

  1. Absolutely, her words still resonate for women today. So many of us still live for others and put off our own dreams. I love the line about shutting the door and telling the children mother is writing a play in blank verse. I think it’s true that people respect others who respect themselves. And letting your children dictate every moment of your life is not self-respect. It’s hard to shut the door, I know. But it must be done sometimes.

    1. Especially in the arts, mothers need to demand respect for the private time needed to create. In doing so we model for our children how to focus and sustain on creative work.

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