Tag Archives: talent

Book Review: ‘If you want to write,’ by Brenda Ueland.

I like this book. I knew I would, as soon as I saw that the first chapter was called, ‘Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.’ Brenda Ueland made this exciting, inspiring and humbling discovery, as I have, through teaching creative writing.

Her second chapter heading is a quotation from William Blake, ‘Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man.’ So straight away, she is talking about the relationship between imagination and soul, and seeing creative writing as a spiritual undertaking.

Ueland has some cracking chapter headings!

We write because we love writing, and love is a transforming energy. Therefore, she says, writing is never a waste of time, whether we are published or not. Writing will make us feel ‘happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous…’

According to Ueland, writing can make us feel healthier too. ‘Colds will disappear,’ she assures us, ‘and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom.’

The book is full of great quotations. I love this, for example, from Alfred de Musset: ‘There exists in most men a poet who died young, whom the man survived.’

At times in the book, as in the quotations, there are certain assumptions and attitudes that grate for the modern reader – all people referred to as ‘men’, for example, as in the de Musset quotation, and one or two casually racist remarks which sound quite shocking to us today.

It’s not surprising if some lines feel culturally unacceptable now in a book that was first published in 1938, but it seems a real shame someone didn’t edit them out, because the substance of what the author has to say is timeless, thoughtful and inspiring.

Writing, Ueland says, is a way to find your true self. ‘And why find it? Because it is, I think, your immortal soul and the life of the Spirit, and if we can only free it and respect it and not run it down, and let it move and work, it is the way to be happier and greater.’

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The dark place where talent leads

When I wrote about talent before, I was thinking about the personal qualities a writer needs to develop if they want to be published and make a career of writing.

Recently, I read a quotation by Erica Jong which reminded me of a quality writers need whether they want to be published or not. She says, ‘Everyone has talent; what is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.’

A dark path to hidden places

You need courage to even embark upon the path of writing, let alone move towards publication, because when you write you are opening up to the hidden places of the self, and you can never be sure what you might find there.

People in workshops will often express surprise at where their writing has taken them – that’s part of the magical and sometimes mystical experience of any creative endeavour.

But occasionally that delighted surprise can give way to something much darker. Dismay, for example – ‘But I don’t want to write sad stories.’ Rejection – ‘That’s not really me!’ Even disgust – ‘I hate the character I’ve conjured into being.’

This is another reason the image Ted Hughes offers for writing as being like fishing is so apt; you might catch a tasty gorgeous trout, but you might equally snare a big angry pike or a grotty old shoe. There could even be alligators circling your bait, ready to pull you down.

What lies beneath the surface?

Again, dreaming with awareness is wonderful preparation for creative writing, because in dreams we will inevitably encounter our own darkness, as well as our light. In intending to recall our dreams, we willingly surrender; we undertake to engage with that inner world, whatever we might find there.

In dreaming, as in writing, we may find more than we might wish to find, but that is the lesson of any inner work; we are much more than what we want to be.

If you are a writer, has your writing ever taken you to dark places that you didn’t know were there?

‘Talent is not at all unusual, my dear…’

When I was first trying to establish myself as an author, I came upon a quotation from the theatrical agent, Peggy Ramsay, which I copied out and stuck on my study wall. She said that talent was not at all unusual; what was unusual was having the character to develop it.

I was really struck by that, because the biggest struggles of my early career were not in developing my writing skills – I had been writing about pretty much everything that happened in my life since I was six – diaries, poems, stories – and my voice and style were already quite well-developed.

But the process of moving from being someone who loved writing to someone who could earn their living from it was very character-building for me. Here are five qualities I had to develop in myself.

1 – Self-belief, aka a thick skin

You won’t last five minutes in this business if you’re sensitive to criticism or can’t take rejection. Way back when I was starting out, one of the agents I approached with a sample of my writing replied, ‘I regret to inform you that we only accept clients who either have some writing ability or something interesting to say.’ See what I mean?

2 – Patience

The wheels of publishing move exceeding slow. Nuff said.

3 – Flexibility

If you can’t sell an idea in one form, you may be able to sell it in another. Most of the ideas I couldn’t sell have turned out to be recyclable in the fulness of time (patience again!)

4 – Trust

Lots of writers have to learn to trust their creative process, but that’s never been an issue for me. Tapping into dreams every night makes you aware of the abundance of stories going on all the time beneath the surface, which can never dry up. However, I have found it challenging to trust I’ll stay solvent on such a haphazard and sporadic income. 

5 – Luck

You might say, what’s luck got to do with character? It’s random, right? But you make your own luck, to some extent. You have to be able to create and spot opportunities, and willing to consider any door that opens up, even if it’s not one you might have considered before.

 I know from my workshops that talent is not unusual. Everybody has a unique voice, and an interesting story to tell. I feel really humbled by some of the writing people produce in half an hour, round my kitchen table.

Trying to make a career of it is different. Not everyone who loves writing will want to embark on that path. If you have done so, what qualities did you have to find in yourself? If you are trying to, what qualities do you think you will need?