“With every sentence you write, you have learned something.”

by DRM


I want to assure you with all earnestness that no writing is a waste of time — no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. I know that. Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make a cent from it, I would still keep on writing.

If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland

I started a new workbook this weekend. I use soft-covered Moleskine notebooks — the large style, without any rules on the page.

The workbook that I just completed spanned from last July through this April. It provides a timeline of surprises, consternations and celebrations: the novel I thought I’d finish is still only half done, a novel I didn’t expect to write was plotted and written in a couple of months, six or seven stories, two big ideas, and assorted bemused scribblings as I work to improve my understanding of life and what I can accomplish in it.

Every new workbook starts with the same ritual. I sit down and transcribe the first two pages of the workbook that is being retired into the new workbook. It is a christening.

What I transcribe is fourteen brief excerpts of the most powerful words I have ever read about creativity, the discovery of self and the importance of writing.

They were written by a woman named Brenda Ueland in 1938 in her book If You Want To Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.

Her message is simple: don’t be anxious, don’t worry about failing, accept the beauty and mystery of the creative act. Set off on a journey to learn about yourself and about the world you live in. When you work from “your true, honest, un-theoretical self,” you do work that is original and important.

When I crawled out of the blind space that my fear of writing cast me in, I was scared and uncertain. I found Ueland’s book. I read it skeptically. I didn’t need inspirational blandishments, empty solecisms. I needed to find that heightened state of true art that I’d glimpsed when I was a young writer.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Her words were strong and simple. The message was precise and passionate.

I started to get it:

Don’t write for anyone but yourself. Don’t write for anything but what you feel. Write for the understanding, the discovery, the pleasure. It will be worth the time and effort. Why? Because you will know something more, and what you know more will help you in life.

That’s why I start every workbook by copying out Ueland’s words. So that I keep hold of the simple reason for doing this work, no matter what.