Wednesday, September 30, 2009

If You Want to Write

Working Stiffs welcomes guest blogger Cheryl Williams today.

Hi everyone! from a newbie to your board. I’m here via an invite from Annette Dashofy. I asked casually one day at our critique group, how does your site choose people to blog? (smile)

I hope you like these thoughts from a discussion I led at our Pennwriters group at Barnes & Noble, South Hills Village, Pittsburgh PA. Jumping right in….

What advice would a writer from 1938 have for writers of our current day? Would it still be timely to our needs? You bet! Barbara Ueland’s seventy-year-old book touches the heart and fires the imagination. Titled ‘If You Want to Write’, the 179 page ‘little book’ trumpets itself as “A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit’. Copyrighted in 1938, it was republished in 1989 by Graywolf Press. Please join with me as we examine some of the thoughts of Ms. Ueland.

I love author bios, I hope you do too. Barbara Ueland was born in Minneapolis in 1891. Her father was a judge and her mother a suffragette and first president of the Minnesota League of Women Voters. Barbara graduated from Barnard in 1913 and lived in NYC until 1930, where she was part of the Greenwich Village bohemian crowd that included Eugene O’Neill. After her return to Minnesota in 1930, she earned her living as a journalist, editor, freelance writer and teacher of writing. (She also went through three husbands along the way.) She remained physically and mentally active until her death at the age of 93 in 1985.

In her book, she reminisces about teaching at the YWCA. “There were all kinds of people – men and women, rich and poor, erudite and uneducated, highbrow professors and little servant girls so shy that it would take months to arouse in them the courage to try a sentence or two.”

The fact she mentioned ‘servant girls’ got my attention. I had a grandmother who left school in the eighth grade, as many young women did around the turn of the century, to work as a housemaid in one of those now-decaying mansions that dot the Northside of Pittsburgh. Grandma spoke about dusting knickknacks on the shelves and stitching wedding gowns. Anything to help out the family finances in a family of eight kids. Grandma told such wonderful stories that I wonder if she ever fantasized about writing them down. Would things have been different if she’d encountered a teacher like Ms. Ueland? Grandma’s son, my Daddy, always wanted to be a journalist. The dream to write was there. Maybe he inherited a writing bug in his genes? In any case, the family urged my Dad to get his head out of the clouds and study something practical. The only writing he did after that was love poems to my Mom. (The dream to write fell to me, apparently, but that’s another story.)

Back to Ms. Ueland. Barbara’s mission as a teacher was to get her students to express clearly what was true to them from their personal experiences. She led them from initial efforts of stilted, false, dead prose into courageous expressions of slices of life from the heart. Her book is a magnificent pep talk that fires up the writer within each of us. Her key to unlocking the ability to write? She demanded of her students, “Tell me more.”

For instance, she queried a budding novelist about whether the character’s muscles really ‘rippled’. Did the writer actually see that? Her student became excited and declared yes, his muscles were so big they seemed to burst the seams of his coat. Barbara responded, “Well say that! Hurrah! Put it that way. That’s alive, great!”

Barbara writes, “I am blessed with a fascinated, inexhaustible interest in all my pupils – their thoughts, adventures, failures, rages, villainies and nobilities.” She wanted them to see “how gifted they are and consequently grow in boldness and freedom.” To accomplish this, she instructed them to “forget about writing ‘writing’ and… to tell spontaneously, impulsively, what they remembered.”

If you’d like, I could come back sometime and blog on some more inspiring quotes from her book. If you’d like to read it yourself, I’d recommend checking your interlibrary loan system for a copy. In my area of Allegheny County, there’s four in the system.

To close, does anyone else have relatives in the family line who might have become writers if fate had given them the chance? If things had gone a bit differently in their lives?


Cheryl Elaine Williams

Check me out on Facebook – type in all three names, the CEW in Pittsburgh PA. My starter web page:


Sherry said...

Hi Cheryl! I am so glad you wrote about your Pennwriters' talk. Sorry I missed it live.

On my mother's side I come from a line of strong, creative women. I like to think that I have some of their "stuff" in me. None of them ever wrote a book, and like your family, I think they didn't have the opportunities we have today. After all, they did laundry by hand in a wringer washer. And they sewed their own clothes and other house hold items.

I do think of the oral tradition of these women. They told stories as they worked. Some were true. I suspect a lot were fiction. Perhaps this is where my legacy lies.

Martha Reed said...

Cheryl, welcome to the Working Stiffs! Great story about your grandmother - I love hearing anything about Olde Pittsburgh.

I have an aunt who probably should have been a painter but it wasn't done. She followed the traditional route of marriage and kids and is still bitter about it to this day. Such a shame but then, why didn't she do it on the side? I think people need to take some ownership of their creative powers. I remember the line: Don't let anyone stop you, even if that someone is yourself.

Great post!

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Cheryl!

My ancestors were mostly farmers, which left no time for much in the way of creative pursuit. But I did have one great aunt who married a much older gentleman, who we now believe was in the mob. My aunt was a great storyteller and was the keeper of the family tree back in a time when genealogy was not a popular hobby. She would get my vote as my ancestor most likely to write a great American novel.

Joyce said...

Nice post, Cheryl.

Back in March I wrote this post about my mother. If circumstances had been different, she would have been a writer.

Both of my kids write, too.

Jennie Bentley said...

Welcome, Cheryl. Wow, interesting story. Sounds like someone ought to write a biography... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Cheryl,

I really liked your opening story. Very interesting and you tell the story well.

When I was younger I read much more than I do now and had an interest at one time in writing myself. Maybe I should take some time to practice writing and see what becomes of it.

You seem to enjoy writing so much and you have become very good at it.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished.


liana laverentz said...

Excellent post, Cheryl, inspirational and informative! May you carry your father's dream foward!

Lori Morris said...

Hi Cheryl. Very interesting stuff. I too am sorry I missed the original talk last week. As for "lines of writers" my paternal grandmother used to claim that I got my writing gene from her. She has passed on since and as far as I know, she never wrote anything for publication. But your question prompted that memory. I should look into it. Thanks. Lori

Rebecca J. Clark said...

Very interesting post.

My aunt wrote a book about a baby deer they raised after its mother had been hit and killed by a car. This deer became part of their family, sometimes came into their house, raised its own babies, until her tragic death a few years later when a pack of dogs ran her off a cliff.

Anyway, she sent it to one publisher who rejected it. She figured it must not be good enough so she never sent it off again. I remember my grandmother's comment, "Well, she must not be a good writer." Sheesh. Had I known then what I know about this industry, I would have forced her to keep sending it "out there."

Too bad, eh?

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Sherry, I had to laugh about your comment about the wringer washer. My grandma (the same grandmother mentioned in my blog piece) lovingly used her wringer washer well into the 1960's. I specifically remember watching her feed clothes into the wringer. It's actually a good system for squeezing out the dirt. It was at times like that when she would talk about her earlier years. Yes, this is one example of the oral tradition of stories being passed from one generation of females to another.

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Martha,
thanks for your welcome to Working Stiffs. I too love anything about Olde Pittsburgh or Olde Allegheny. My grandma's house, which is still in the family, dates back to the Civil War, and is in the Bellevue area just on the edge of the Northside. Her street and the nearby ones all have names of Civil War Generals. The lower half of the street is made up of cobblestones.

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Annette, thanks for welcoming me to Working Stiffs. Your great aunt sounds like she was a most interesting lady. Don't you wish our old-time relatives would've left a diary behind in the bottom of their old trunks?

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Joyce, I'll have to check out that link to your blog on your mother. That's great that your two kids write also. Here's wishing them the best of luck!

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Jennie, thanks for the welcome. So you think my Grandma would make a good topic for a biography, hmm? I've always kicked around writing her story. Esp. her love story with Granddad, who served on a ship in WW I and married her as soon as he got back.

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Judy,
thanks for dropping by the board and leaving me your comments. Yes, we all probably read a lot more when we were younger, and then, of course, real life (and time constraints) intervened. Sometimes it's all I can do to read the newspaper, much less a chapter of fiction in a romance or mystery!

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Liana, thanks for the "attagirl" of "May you carry your father's dream forward." My Dad's gone now (both parents and all my grandparents are gone now) but I think they'd be happy about my Chicken Soup sales, at least.

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Lori, that's sweet of your paternal grandmother to encourage you by claiming you got the writing gene from her. That must mean she did some writing in her life. Maybe in school? Maybe your aunts and uncles would know.

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Rebecca, my heart just curls up when I think of your aunt getting that rejection letter and then just giving up. What a shame she didn't have a networking organization to tell her about persistence, like we do today.

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hey Joyce,
I followed that link back to your March blog. Wow, what an incredible find, to discover those papers in your mother's handwriting. About her remembrance of December 7, 1941, that date was special to my Dad also, being from that generation. As a young man listening to those broadcasts that day on the radio, he knew he was going to war.

Mary Ricksen said...

I'm kinda sad that your dad was discouraged from his dream. He could have been a major author. Or editor at a magazine, who knows.
At least his daughter can be an author in his place.
The stories we heard were always wonderful to me, but not till I was older. As a kid I couldn't wait to go somewhere else, but as an adult I love them.

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

Hi Mary, I know what you mean about listening as a kid to the adults gab, you always want to go somewhere else. Now those times are gone forever and many of the oldtimers are gone too, unfortunately.

Which reminds me to make sure all the photos in my photo albums have a notation of whoever's in the photo.

Debra St. John said...

This still is fabulous advice. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hi Cheryl & All,

I'm glad to find another fan of Brenda Ueland. I have a copy of "If You Want to Writer" at home and another copy in my office.

I especially like her chapter on "why Renaissance noblemen wrote sonnets." They were not looking to get published. They wrote so they would learn more about love, or politics, or farming (and there were sonnets about all these things). And when they finished, they understood a little more about love, or politics, or farming. That was their whole motivation.

I find it an inspiring notion, that we can write simply to learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

Another great book of Ueland's that's still in print is "Strength to Your Sword Arm". Check it out!

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Hi Cheryl! I had to laugh about the wringer washer because it brought back memories. I used one until I had my first child, when I put my foot down and insisted we buy an automatic washer. I almost got knocked out when I was trying to get my heavy bedspread through the wringer and it popped up and hit me in the forehead.

You did an excellent job with your review, I thoroughly enjoyed it!


JOYCE K said...

Hello Cheryl! I enjoyed reading your post, and what particularly drew my attention was Ueland's stategy of how she got her students to say it in words, simply. "The rippling muscles" were really "muscles that would rip the seams", the 2nd phrase giving a much more vivid picture of the shirt tearing, having a much greater impact on the reader. Often times i have to stop myself and rethink before I write, how i would say it simply from the mouth.

Also, something else we have in common besides having been published in the Chicken Soup Series - exactly as your grandma did, my mom quit school in the 8th grade to go do housework for a family in Washington County. She was only 13 at the time, and regrets never having finished her education, as i think this would have made her feel better about herself. My mom isn't much of a reader, let alone a writer, but in her younger years, she sure could lay a great brick sidewalk!

For me now, family responsibilities, a job, 6 cats, and keeping up a house get in the way of being able to just sit down with pen in hand and telling my stories like Ms. Ueland would have!

Cheryl Elaine Williams said...

I'd like to acknowledge the last four people who posted a comment to my piece. Thank you, Debra, for the welcome to the board. Doreen, I too was moved by Ms. Ueland's description of the Renaissance Man writing sonnets - it reminded me of educated people in other cultures (not the US and probably not Canada either), where it is traditionally a mark of distinction for a business person to also publish a book of poetry. It shows him as a person of culture.

Helga, so glad you stopped by. Helga is a Canadian Internet friend of mine from an entertainment yahoo list. I'm honored that a non-writing friend dropped in!

Joyce K. has been published in Chicken Soup for the Wine Lovers Soul. Good to hear from you, Joyce. Your Mom, a lovely lady, has so much energy - now I understand why, since she started her working life at age 13! Ah, that was a different era back then, wasn't it.