I’m paraphrasing, of course. She wasn’t quite so crass in her analysis. After all, her book was published in the 1930s. And it’s hard for me to imagine such a black thought entering that beautiful bright mind of hers. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m idealizing her. Could be she slurred those very words over a glass of scotch with a friend in front of a flickering fire one cold November night while rain pattered against the window and Cole Porter crooned from a Zenith radio somewhere in the dark background. But I digress.
Certainly Brenda Ueland considered critics to be lower life forms (and she was referring to all naysayers, not just the self-appointed pundits). To her they were nothing more than backseat drivers, noisemakers, whiners and wet blankets who could rise up only by dragging others down. In her book she calls them “haters”. Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. She subscribed to the view that, those who can, do, and those who can’t, criticize. But at the same time she amends that sentiment, even when it comes to those pesky bottom feeders. Because she illustrates that, in reality, every one of us is creative, and that each of us is an artist in his own right. That we all belong, and that every single person—from the New York Times bestselling author to the guy bagging your groceries--has something of value to give.
I’ll say that again. Every single person has something to give.
And before you say, “Maybe so, but just because you call something art doesn’t mean you’ll make any money at it,” I would counter with, “So what?” And that’s a topic for an entirely different discussion anyway.
Stephen King said all you have to do is say you’re a writer or a sculptor or a musician and people will stand in line to make you feel shitty about it. What we need to do is shut those people out, shut them down, and shut them up (especially—and sadly—those in our own families and circle of friends). These people seem to take your creative spirit almost as a personal affront. They start when you’re young, doing their damnedest to snuff that spark before it takes hold. They grind it into the dust under their heel like a cigarette butt, trying to crush the life out of it “for your own good.” And the hell of it is, most of the time they succeed.
Brenda Ueland rails against this murder of the spirit. In fact, those are the only points in the book where her tenderness turns to rage, like a lioness protecting her cubs. Otherwise, she barely raises her voice, which is gentle, full of love and understanding, and all the more powerful for it. She shows that art can be anything, not just what we’ve come to see it as. Art can be a mechanic fixing an engine, or a barber giving a haircut. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s all around us. But it’s in the eye of the beholder.
The artist and poet, William Blake knew this. So did Vincent van Gogh, now considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, painters in the world, but who died a pauper.
Ms. Ueland speaks to—and for—every writer, every painter, everyone who’s ever suffered ridicule at the hands of the haters, and her words are like a soothing balm. She speaks to all artists everywhere, who are all people in all walks of life, and her message isn’t sentimental and contrived. It’s pragmatic and workaday. It’s real.
So if you love what you do, if it makes you happy, then you keep right on doing it no matter what. Period. And tell the next person who tries to tell you different to shut their festering gob.
If you’re a writer, an artist, or anyone nagged by self-doubt, who feels that you can’t possibly have anything important to say or anything of value to offer, I urge you to read the wonderful words of this lovely woman. Maybe they’ll ease your mind. Maybe they’ll even change your life. Books can do that, you know. God, that’s amazing to me.