Friday 13 March 2009

Brenda Ueland: If you want to write

I am trying to figure out why this book that was first published in 1938 has had such an uplifting impact on me.

The author, a writer, editor and teacher, who was born in 1891 in Minneapolis and died in 1985, says nothing that is new to me. I guess the joy of reading this book is the joy of discovering that there are other people out there who believe art to be about beauty, about the divine self within us, and who are convinced like me that real creativity comes from the truth within us, from the imagination and love that we all can find within.

Her first chapter heading reads: Everybody Is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say
Again and again she returns to this truth. We must not judge, discriminate art in any other way but for the honesty in expressing what is within. She won’t fall for style, education, intellect or anything else.

Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man is how William Blake expressed it. He thought that we must keep this creative power alive all our lives. It is our duty to make time for its manifestation. Ueland stresses more than once that writing is not the only form of expressing this divine power. It can be expressed with anything that you love doing or making, from painting, making music, dancing, gardening, cooking, sewing. The possibilities are endless, but the expression has to be honest.

The simple thing of cooking comes to mind. People have lost the ability to express their truth in this way today. They eat out, buy ready-made food, or imitate TV cooks.

I have always cooked. For me it is part of giving the love to my family. My adult daughters, who are at university now, still come home for a cuddle and for a shared home-cooked meal that tastes of me, when they are in emotional turmoil. They prefer to eat at home rather than be invited out. My cooking contains my essence and my love, and that’s what they long for when they are stressed or unhappy, or even when they are deliriously happy, because too much luck or good fortune can also take its toll on the heart.

Blake wrote poetry and painted endlessly but he never had ambition, or worried about being published. He burnt most of his work.

I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art…
Ueland defines the creative impulse, in her case writing, such: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. She promised herself never to fall into those two extremes (both lies) of saying, I have nothing to say and am of no importance and have no gift or The public doesn’t want good stuff.
As writers we might do well to join her in this promise. The majority of us are neither bland and boring nor geniuses but ordinary human beings trying to do their best in making use of the gift they were given.

Is it ethical for Writers to fictionalise Family or Friends

Julie Myerson’s book, The Lost Child, not in the bookshops yet, has created a lot of pre-publication excitement, not because of its literary merit, nobody seems to talk about that, but because Myerson admitted that it dealt with the drug problem of her oldest son.

The son says he didn’t want the book to be published.

The critics not only blame Myerson for disrespecting his wishes for privacy but also for her actions, which she details in the book, throwing her 17-year old out of the family home.

I personally belong to the group of writers who judge it unethical to use family or friends as characters in their fiction. A fictional story has its own flow and rhythm and can never do justice to the life of a living human being. Autobiography and biography may try to achieve a complete picture of a person but I don’t believe for one moment that they can ever succeed and capture the whole story.

On the other hand I completely understand that a writer deals with emotional upheavals by writing. I do the same but I distinguish between writing as therapy and writing for publication.
When I write because I can’t cope emotionally or spiritually with what is happening in my life I first of all change the way I do it. I use paper and pen rather than the computer. I have many notebooks full of letters to human beings, to God, to my deeper self, as well as descriptions of my states. Nobody is ever allowed to read these notebooks, not even my nearest and dearest. I am well aware that they contain material for a few novels but I wouldn’t dream of using it, or shall I say not directly, in its raw form.

For example I coped with caring for my terminally ill mother-in-law, with whom I had a very difficult relationship, by writing. My writing was fuelled by anger, by self-pity, by exhaustion, and many other more fleeting emotions. Years later I have used her death – she died at home – in a novel. A character in my novel dies of the same illness she died of and I used my memory - I didn’t need the notebook - to describe the moment of his death. The character and his son go through completely different struggles from the ones my mother-in-law and I faced, and the emotional side of my real life-experience was not touched upon in the novel at all.

At other times I might use an emotional experience for a novel, but not the actual story. A broken heart, being jealous of a sibling, getting married, becoming a mother etc. are universal experiences that many of us go through, and yes, sometimes our fictional characters will mirror our own way of dealing with these emotional issues. At other times however I enjoy creating a character that does what I can’t do. In Julie Myerson’s case I might have written about a mother who does not kick out her son, who finds another way of dealing with the situation. I appreciate that this is not easy to do while you are going through the trauma.

I believe that if you want to use real-life traumas as themes for a novel you have to wait until you have fully digested the whole experience. The writer can’t afford to be emotionally involved with her characters. She needs a coldness in her heart while writing. All the characters must be equally precious to her. She can’t take sides with the character that sees the world like she does. Many people say that at least seven years have to pass; some say ten, before you should use events from your own life in fiction. Experiences have to lie fallow and fade in importance before they can be turned into successful fiction.

And what about the motive of warning others, of trying to raise awareness of an issue, you may ask. Campaigns have no place in fiction. They belong to non-fiction.