Yesterday I read Brenda Ueland’s classic, “If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit,” and it’s one of the most profound books on art and life that I have ever read. It’s basically an affirmation and exhortation to write until you hit your truths, and keep writing, stripping your writing of all pretense. Write until you hit your authentic voice, from that place deep inside you, and continue mining, without posturing, without worrying about grammar or word choices or style.
I won’t summarize it all here — if you want to read it, if the time is right, you will.
Ueland managed to psychologically untangle me from too many years of academic study in about 2 hours: the actual practice may take longer to be realized.
In my first entry “On Truth,” I discussed my reservations about truth in writing — not just believably framing my life’s shipwreck, but how much of all this revelation is necessary. What Ueland emphasized is the absolute need for the writer to sink into her truth, with reckless, passionate, sloppy abandon. Over and over. Getting it right in clean sentences elegantly hewn is less important than honestly connecting with that thing squirming around inside waiting for discovery. That is writing. That’s the art of writing. So while I questioned the importance of all this truth, Ueland told me yesterday, “just do it.” The writer or artist doesn’t know what that thing is, until they connect to it.
I recently stumbled on a Joan Didion quote, “If I had any access to my own mind, I wouldn’t have had to write.” We don’t know our truth until we connect to it, can’t see it. That’s why I’ve chosen this path. For a consuming need to know and the selfish need to thrive have shaped my life, and my every major decision, including this one: to touch my truth. I may not do it well, but it must be done, no matter the costs.
We don’t arrive at any myth building — for that’s what the writer’s engaged in, building a myth of self and the world, based on everything and everyone that they have taken in, reorganizing it, and creating something new — until we fearlessly throw it all down, struggling with the muse as we push on, while descending into our psyche.
The revelations offered by Ueland resonated with another epiphany I had earlier this week. There’s a great and growing culture of internet policing and thought patrolling that quibbles over every word spoken. It’s numbing and dumbing. What a creative waste. Yes, let’s get this clear, creative genius is the fire and passion and abandon of patrolling what is right and wrong on the internet. Too many of us ceremoniously lambast people for what they say, and then govern how they apologize. None of this smacks of allowing growth or the interchange of ideas that foster a better world. The internet police don’t give people the opportunity to speak their truth, and then revise it as they move along. “Once it’s on the internet, it stays there forever.”
What poppycock. What myopia. What lack of personal freedom we are imposing on each other. We kill creativity, because everyone’s policing and the fear of being wrong, much like higher education, stifles the process of connecting to a deep, inner creative well. Unlike higher education, which at least on the surface practices some freedom, even if deeply political and biased in its practices, the internet is all a twitter (allusion intended) with sound bite criticisms that offer little in substantive reflection. I am one of the worst of the reactionaries and offenders, but I like to think I’ve given myself a little distance, recently. (“The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr is good book on how the internet is changing our brain, and, effectively, dumbing us down.)
What we do when we write is touch a truth buried inside, at that moment. We may not hold to that truth tomorrow. But we must first touch it, connect to it, and reveal it to our own minds.
This is freedom. The ability to make mistakes. “The artist,” I wrote in my journal this morning, “must assert freedom, no matter the controversy — it’s the prophetic vision that keeps us human and alive and the individual in tact.” I’m not entirely certain what I meant by all of that, and it’s certainly ripe for unpacking. For the boldest among us, the artist must assert controversy, because it’s the truest act of freedom, especially when too many seem to be falling prey to policing in the name of the greater good.
And I’ll make another leap, in this brief and uncensored and unrevised entry — the less we censor ourselves, the more likely we will be to touch on the greater truths buried in us. “My truth” may eventually take on resonances of the big truths, the grand human truths, the truths of life that extend to our place in the universe, the deep mythologies that bind us, the experiences that make us all storytellers, make us all geniuses, players on earth who are also just part of an overwhelming cosmos that we’ve yet to comprehend. When we are willing to face the fear of being wrong, and edge our way inward, exposing that flawed human creature making her way on the page, one word at a time, that’s when we’ve connected to truth, however imperfectly.