How Brenda Ueland’s Book Changed My Life

The first question you’re probably asking if you ended up on this blog is “Who is Brenda Ueland?” Brenda Ueland is the author of a book that I just finished reading called “If You Want to Write”, which was recommended by Guy Kawasaki. Many of you know him as one of chief advocates or “evangelists” for Apple Computer back in their early days or the author of several books.

if you want to write erp software consulting

I was on a webinar where Guy was promoting his 10th book – Enchantment. Attending the presentation were hundreds of callers hanging on his every word. One of the callers asked what book he would recommend and, without hesitation, he said “If You Want to Write changed my life. “  Everyone was on mute but you could almost hear the keyboards tapping away. Holy crap, I thought – this book changed Guy Kawasaki’s life!

Jolted into action, my first move was to Google “If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland”. The search results gave me the link to Amazon to buy the book, the Wikipedia entry for Brenda Ueland and a host of quotations from blogs. I followed the Amazon link and “previewed” the book. I figured based on the title that it was a book about how to write. It seemed worth exploring further to see if it was a handbook or a “self help” kind of thing.

Looking at the book summary, I noticed the subtitle was “A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit”.  Good, I thought – maybe it’s about more than just writing.  Writing is BORING, right? A book about art wasn’t doing it for me, but the independence and spirit part was starting to sound like more fun. Then Wikipedia told me that this book was written in the 1930’s by a writing teacher in Minnesota. Her students were housewives, servant ladies and other folks that in most cases had never written anything before. What secret could Brenda possibly have about writing, independence – really anything that would change Guy Kawasaki’s life?

If I had to give a Cliff Notes version of the book, I would summarize her ideas as follows.  Brenda believed that creativity is the key to living a vibrant life, full of happiness. She told her students to write from the heart, write whatever you want, keep writing if people tell you it stinks, write as if it will never be published…basically, let it all hang out. Her inspirations were Carl Sandburg and Tolstoy, yet her examples of great writing were almost all from her uneducated students. Meanwhile she skewered popular writers of the day, such as H.L. Mencken, and talked about smoking and drinking coffee all day.

I won’t go into too much detail, because I just want to provide a teaser or “trailer”. You’ll have to use your imagination a bit [hint, this is foreshadowing for you book fans].

My “top 5” list of chapter titles from the book are as follows:

  1. Everybody is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say
  2. Be Careless, Reckless! Be a Lion! Be a Pirate! When You Write
  3. Art is Infection
  4. You Do Not Know (What) Is in You – an Inexhaustible Fountain of Ideas
  5. He Whose Face Gives No Light Shall Never Become a Star

There are several other quotes from the book that I’ll throw in to give you more of a flavor.

  • “Creative power and imagination is in everyone. It is very tender and sensitive, and it is usually drummed out of people early in life by criticism.”
  • “The only good teachers for you are those who love you, who think you are interesting…if you have no such friend – and you want to write – well, then you must imagine one.”
  • “Everybody is original, if he tells the truth…but it must be from his “true” self and not from the self he thinks he “should” be.”

Here’s my sample of the powerful lessons in the book. They are as relevant today as they were back then, maybe even more so.

  • Just do it – Anyone can write (paint, draw, sing, play music, fill in the ______) if they have the courage to get started. Writing is just a metaphor for creativity – and everyone is creative.
  • Ignore your critics – Brenda told her students that if someone tells you a story isn’t good, then go write 3 more!  I love that. She’s constantly reminding them not to “please teacher”, do it for you, art critics don’t know anything about art, etc. – basically, who cares what people think? Brenda sounds like someone who would be a blast to have a beer with.
  • Speak from the heart – Brenda says “Advertising companies hire the very brightest, wittiest young people to write for them. Not one single sentence of it is worth repeating. Why? Because it wasn’t meant.” Writing that’s not from the heart is like Van Gogh doing a portraits of rich people because he needed the money.
  • Short and sweet – A simple message free of clutter is more powerful than something complicated. Now that I’ve read Enchantment, I see evidence of Brenda’s influence in Guy’s writing style and in his presentation materials. Shorter is better, slash big words, take out the pretense – let the message shine through.
  • Be honest – I knew within the first few pages that Brenda calls it like it is, and I trusted her immediately. Your writing and speaking should be genuine, because if you don’t believe it then nobody else will.

This is all good advice, but life changing? At first I was skeptical. Then a few strange things began happening.  I started taking longer breaks and shooting hoops out in my driveway. Within a day or so, ideas for my business started flowing.  Inspiration came slowly and quietly, as Brenda said it would. Incidentally, all this basketball was good exercise and I unexpectedly started dropping weight. Lately I find myself out on the deck drawing with my boys, dancing in my basement, savoring my food, etc. – essentially enjoying life (more) in the moment. I feel like Brenda lit a fire in me, a fire that is lighting up my family and business life too!

The biggest change is that I’ve rediscovered the joy of writing that I had when I was a kid, back when my nickname was John Boy (kids, ask your parents about the Waltons). So in addition to my company’s blog, I’m now creating content for a personal Twitter feed that spans a wider spectrum of personal interests!

To give you a rough idea of the ROI, I bought this paperback on Amazon for the whopping price of $8.25. It’s better than any self-help or get-rich-quick book I’ve ever read. The latest Kindle price I saw was $3.99, and you can read that on your iPad. It took me about 2 hours cover to cover. Think of the time commitment as how long it takes you to watch a Coen Brothers’ movie or the latest installment from Pixar that your kids (and you, admit it) can’t wait to see.

If you like “If You Want to Write”, then I encourage you to consider Guy Kawasaki’s “Enchantment” as well. It’s a beautifully written book, and it’s already been a boon to my business. I’m using it like an entrepreneur’s handbook. Guy also has lots of “tips and tricks” on Twitter @guykawasaki.

If you want to share a good book, blog or conversation then I’m open to connections on @LinkedIn or on Twitter @danaldridge1. I would also welcome comments.


Dan Aldridge

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Dan Aldridge
Follow Dan Aldridge on Twitter @danaldridge1
Reston, VA
Dan Aldridge

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