My copy of Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write arrived the other day. I “met” her years ago when I was reading a book (title long forgotten) about writing. At the time I was teaching elementary school and telling myself I wanted to learn about writing “for my students.”

One of her quotes was about being content in writing like little children when they are absorbed in a solo activity like stringing beads. I’d seen kids like that. It didn’t matter what other kids were doing, where they were sitting, or how much time they had. They were completely absorbed in putting one bead after another along the string. They focused on getting the string into the little hole. Sometimes it was hard because their little hands weren’t used to this “work.” I’d see a little smile at the corner of their mouth when the tip went through the hole.

Techniques were different. Some slid the bead along manually to the knotted end. Some lifted up the lace tip at the beginning and let the bead zoom down to the end. Ping! Some would touch each bead after it joined its mates. Then it was choice time for the next bead. Just grab a bead without looking? Look over the colors and choose? Compare to what was already strung and make a pattern- red, blue, yellow, red, blue yellow? Happily, very few asked what to do next.

When I move into writing mode, I can get like that too. I’m lost in the writing. Sometimes I bang out the words. Sometimes I choose a word carefully. Sometimes I stop and look over what I’ve written. Is there a pattern? Is it pleasing?

I admit I do like a certain environment when I write–quiet, but not necessarily silent. Instrumental music is okay. Comfortable seating has become more important as time goes by. And it’s nice to have space to the left of my laptop for a snack plate and coffee mug. I realize once I am getting words onto the screen, my focus goes like a laser from brain to eyes to fingers to screen. And yet, if I take my laptop to Crossroads Coffee or am writing with my Eastside Writing Room group, I couldn’t even tell you if they play music. Or if the chair is too hard. So okay, I guess I am “stringing beads.”

Ms. Ueland was born in 1891 and died at the age of ninety-three. This wonderful book was first published in 1938. Almost ten years before I was born, this invitation to write was being extended to anyone. When I opened my book package, I flipped through just to see what it was like. Oh there’s the stringing beads anecdote. That’s when I sat down to read page after page.

Her ideas are direct, almost “Do this.” But there is an encouraging tone as she thinks about and talks to her students. To me, her admonishments are kind of like “Of course you can do this.”

Here are the words that give me permission, yet again, to just be. My creativity is in there. It will come:

       “I learned…that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic    striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.” 

And here’s the one that keeps the joy in my writing:

“Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason and Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.”


Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.