If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. St. Paul, Minn.: Gray Wolf Press. 179 pp. $6.50. When Brenda Ueland's ``If You Want to Write'' was first published in 1938, it skimmed past failure. Reprinted in hardback in 1985 and in paperback in 1987, the book now sizzles success.
Ueland's sparkling inspiration is William Blake. He was the supreme artist; he appreciated the intrinsic nature of beauty, and exquisitely represented his perceptions (through poetry and painting) - with complete honesty.
Perhaps a better title for this book would be ``If You Want to Create Works of Art.'' When Ueland refers to writing, she is referring to all expressions of art.
This is not an ordinary book on writing. Ueland is not ordinary. She set an international swimming record for over 80-year-olds and was knighted by the King of Norway. For several years she taught at the Minneapolis YMCA. In her characteristic, plucky manner she says: ``Now my teaching differs from that of others in this way: I am blessed with a fascinated, inexhaustible interest in all my pupils - their thoughts, adventures, failures, rages, villainies and nobilities.''
To show that all individuals can write creatively if they write from themselves, Ueland tells anecdotes about her pupils. On the whole they are an unambitious, simple folk. There was the Irish stenographer who worked nine hours a day in the subbasement of a department store. She was about 30, unmarried, and dressed plainly. While on a four-day vacation in Glacier Park, the Irish woman kept a notebook she filled with colorful, rolling prose. ```There's always something fascinating about a passing freight train - the big black engine with the ugly, bony arm on its side...,''' and so forth.
Over and over Ueland rails at ``highbrow'' writers who write for fame. Even worse is their criticism, which clamps people shut with inhibition. It is vital to write, Ueland repeats. The seed of creativity needs nourishment. ``We should all, great and small, be creating all the time,'' she says, ``casting off our works but forgetting them, and looking always toward the work ahead.''
Occasionally she seems to drift off into a kind of cosmic vision. She speaks of the true self as the ``Conscience (or Holy Ghost).'' The personality behind writing she calls the Third Dimension, and she identifies two egos. The human ego is conceit, she says, and the divine ego ``is your sense of power and understanding inside.''
She ignores almost completely the importance of craft. But to learn the fox-trot one needs more than spontaneous imagination. One need lessons. And to be an expert, one should probably study the fox-trot virtuosos and discern how they make their moves.
Still there is a spirit here not found in the mainstream books on writing - those on word usage, style, common literary blunders, and the writing profession. Says Ueland: ``Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize.''
Roger Dean du Mars is a free-lance writer.