A Writerly Life: Brenda Ueland

“Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first,–at least for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you will use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, lighthearted and generous to everyone else.”
— Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write

The Lexicon Practice

Some days I write and the words flow easily. Then, all of a sudden, I’ll hit a bump and run out of words.

No writer should be without a supply of Very Good Words.

So, I’ve started a lexicon practice. A Lexicon Practice is where you put actual time – regular time – into collecting words and phrases.

Leonardo da Vinci did it. James Joyce did it. Mary Oliver does it. Priscilla Long does it. She says, “The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words”.

I have a small bound and sewn blank book that I put words in. I haven’t gotten far with it, but this small book is where I record words that strike my fancy. Words I want to savor. Words I want to own.

Dorothea Brande said, “Be on the alert to find appropriate words wherever you read.”

My Lexicon holds new words and old words that please me. It is part of my resource base as a writer.

If you don’t have a Lexicon, consider starting one today. Get a small notebook and start gathering words. Don’t ignore or diminish the power words have to make your writing work.

Complaining is Good!

When Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant, meets a client who is discouraged and can’t get motivated, she says, “While I might be tempted to say, ‘Quit complaining and get to work,’ I know complaining is actually proof that a person still has the energy to carry on”.

The word “energy,” according to the Oxford dictionary, is defined as “the strength and vitality required for sustained . . . mental activity”.

For the woman writer, the one who yearns to find a time and space to write, or more time and space, this is good news. You still have energy.

Writing Practice: the dreaded 15 minute write

Almost every writing teacher argues that the basic unit of writing is writing practice, usually a timed exercise, with the admonition that through practice you actually do get better.

However, I have never enjoyed exercises like: Look at a plant. Write the life of the plant – what it’s done, what it’s seen, where it’s heading, its thoughts. I have never found advice like, try writing in your notebook upside down, or turn the book sideways, or write outside the margins to be helpful. I just do not believe that these small tasks will force me to think in creative ways, that forcing my brain to think outside the lines will make me a better writer.

I used to despise writing practice.

I felt like I had little enough precious time and I did not want to fritter it away on writing that was just practice. After rereading Brande’s Becoming a Writer, Campbell’s The Artist’s Way, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, I revised my aversion to writing practice. I mixed up their ideas and came up with a system that works for me, and it is one that I now encourage my writing students to use as well.

I advocate writing for either fifteen minutes or three pages, whichever comes first. However, from there my approach differs. I warm up with the first page of writing. I am primping the pump, so the rules are simple: Write without stopping. Do not be concerned with being good. It is warming up the writing muscle, just like stretches warm up our physical muscles.

But after the first page is done, I switch to deliberate writing, and this different type of writing. This is where I deviate from Brande, Goldberg and Campbell. In the next two pages I generate new writing. It’s deliberate. It’s specific. This advice does not originate with me—I got it from Priscilla Long who said, “The writing done in writing practice can be about anything . . .It can be an observation exercise. It can be work on an essay, story, article, or scene. It can be used to conceptualize new work” (p. 15,16).

Since I read that advice a year ago, I have done writing practice almost every day. I have written poetry. I have done character sketches. I have drafted new essays. I have done observation exercises. I’ve moaned and complained (I do it once in a while). Usually, I plan, conceptualize and draft new work.

I agree with Long when she says, “In a busy life, a week and then two weeks can go by in no time at all, with little or no writing done. The practice of writing for fifteen minutes per day simply deletes this problem” (p. 15). More importantly, writing for fifteen minutes a day helps commit to safekeeping a woman’s writing life.

The One Hard Thing Rule

In June, I developed my One Hard Thing Rule: I do one hard thing every day. For me, it is often something that needs to be done that I’ve been avoiding.

It can be a simple as mopping the kitchen floor or writing an email that I’ve been avoiding.

Weeks after I started this, I came across Angela Duckworth’s work and something that she calls, the “Hard Thing Rule”. It’s a ritual, where, every single day, you have to do one hard thing. For Duckworth, “A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice”.

It’s satisfying to write down the One Hard Thing I’ve done each day. Sometimes, it’s even fun. But, most importantly, every day is an opportunity for me to perform one small act of bravery that has the potential to change the course of my (writing) life. Duckworth believes that by doing hard things is how we develop grit. I believe it makes me a better writer. It is a way of purposely, safely, joyfully challenging myself to do just One Hard Thing every day.

Writing is hard. Committing words to a page day in and day out is hard.

It requires some amount of confidence and commitment.

Writing might be a passion, but it requires perseverance. It requires grit.

Duckworth said, “Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it” (Chapter 4).

That just may be the advantage of the One Hard Thing Rule for women writers.

Sacrifice Something & Write

If you’ve been reading my blog, by now you’ve figured out that I think many of the secrets to writing are, frankly, annoying: don’t watch TV, get up at 3 a.m. and write, give up housework, or shop online. While none of these are inherently bad, they don’t really address the reasons why some women can’t be Super-Woman-Writer. Ie: be a wife and mother, work full time, attend graduate school, exercise 45 minutes a day, and still find time to write a novel a year.

After much reading and thinking, I think that the bottom line is that to make time to write, you must sacrifice something from your day. The sacrifice can be sleep, it can that you order take-out once a week instead of making supper , or you giving up Netflix, or parties, or hobbies. But even that sounds much simpler than it is. In the end, I think it might be easier to ask yourself if you are willing NOT to do one thing and then use that time to write. I think that not doing one thing changes the dance we have with our culture and society just a little bit. It lets us stand up for writing dreams. Try it for a week. See if it helps. I think you’ll be surprised.

Why Can’t I Find Time to Write? Part 5

This is the fifth in a several-part post.

The theme of virtually every article about how to write is straightforward: Just do it. Just find the time to write. Just write! So why don’t we? How can so many women be so morally bankrupt that they can’t take this simple advice?

Here’s what I think: we try to pretend that the advice we are given is really good and the failure lies with all the women who can’t make it work for them. That’s wrong. It doesn’t make any sense. Is it not more logically that the advice we are given is just really bad advice for women writers? In a Paris Review Interview Toni Morrison admits that she has no routine. She says, “I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time” (p. 3). This woman gives me hope.