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I was thinking about the genre of how-to-write books recently (at the last Word-by-Word meeting, in fact, when I purchased another writing book from a fellow attendee). There are so many of them, with so many kernels of ‘wisdom’…but I find that some of them don’t actually inspire me or encourage me to write at all, so when I find ones that are inspirational, I think they’re worth holding on to.

I’m going to be running a workshop at NTE in December on writing (broadly part of the network time, but I think it will be more useful to run it as a workshop), so I’m starting to think through what I might say. The Faithful Writer conference will no doubt provide me with a lot of inspiration (and Karen may be joining me to run the workshop), but I’m also just scanning my shelf of writing books and seeing what I can glean from them.

There’s one I haven’t looked at in years, and I’m so glad I picked it up again. If you want to write: a book about art, independence and spirit was written by Brenda Ueland in 1938, and it is the most incredible book. Her style borders on hilarious – she rants and scolds quite a lot – but it’s almost like having a conversation with a mentor, someone who is guiding, encouraging and reassuring you that your writing is not in vain.

The book was given to me by Aoise, who now lives in the States and who I haven’t spoken to in ages. I miss her a lot, and I’m not sure that she knows it, but she certainly was a bit of a creative mentor to me when we were at uni together, doing plays, drinking wine and enjoying our cats.

Here’s a long excerpt about the concept of ‘moodling’, allowing your imagination time and space to discover what it will:

It is these fool, will-worshiping people who live by maxims and lists of chores and the Ten commandments – not creatively as when a fine, great maxim occurs to you and bursts a little, silent bomb of revelation in you – but mechanically.

“…Honor thy father and thy mother” …the active, willing, do-it-now man thinks and makes note of this daily, sets his jaw, and thinks he does honor them, which he does not at all, and which of course his father and mother know and can feel, since nothing is hidden by outer behaviour.

The idle creative man says:

“’Honor thy father and mother.’…That is interesting…I don’t seem to honor them very much…I wonder why that is?” and his imagination creatively wanders on until perhaps it leads him to some truth such as the fact that his father is a peevish and limited man, his mother unfortunately rattle-brained. This distresses him and he puzzles and thinks and hopes again and again for more light on the subject and tries everything his imagination shows to him, such as being kinder or controlling his temper; and perhaps he comes to think: “Is it they who are peevish and boring, or is it just that I, being a small man, think so?” And he goes on and seeks and asks for the answer with his imagination. And who knows, in time he even may come to understand what Christ did (who as I said was one of the most imaginative men who ever lived and whose life was fiercely and passionately directed against following mechanically any rules whatever): how if one is great and imaginative enough one can honor and love people with all their limitations.

So you see the imagination needs moodling, – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.

. . . If you write, good ideas must come welling up into you so that you have something to write. If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. Wait for them. Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are. But do not feel, any more, guilty about idleness and solitude.

Brenda Ueland, If you want to write, Graywolf Press, 1987, p31-33