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: http://www.cherylelainewilliams.com