Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Years ago a friend introduced me to one of my favorite books on writing, selling me on the value of the piece by noting Chapter 10 in the book.

The book is called, If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland, published by Greywolf Press.

Chapter 10: Why Women Should Neglect Their Housekeeping for Their Writing.
I loved Brenda Ueland right away.
That week I drove down to Salt Lake City, parking on Main Street outside Sam Weller’s Bookstore. Down in the basement where the used books line up like dutiful sailors in the hull, I cruised through the chilly basement aisles, sniffing the familiar scent of books whose pages have been opened and exposed to all kinds of air: dry Utah valley air; fresh mountain cabin air; wet salty seaside vacation air; damp bathroom reading air. Pages read and turned then closed and set in piles for decades before they found their way to this musty old bookstore basement. I recognized the blue cover of Ueland’s paperback from the one my friend had shown me, a little azure stripe amid thick textbooks in the Writing & Writers section, just around the corner from the massive Self Help bookcases. I picked up her book and fanned the pages like a stack of playing cards, pressing my thumb a bit to stop the fanning right around where I thought Chapter 10 might be. Indeed, the title still remained. Validation, printed right there in black and white!
I read propped up on a pile of pillows in my bed that night. Discovered early on that what the author has to say is not that women should be liberated with the same bra-burning anger as they were in my youth when we started crawling out from under the dominion of unrighteous men. (Note that I say unrighteous men. Men who truly align their lives with the gospel never did dominate women.) She does, however, encourage those of us who feel a cultural pull to perform well in the home to let go of that self imposed definition of adequacy. What I got that night, and other nights when my kids were finally in bed and I had a moment to read, was more of a confirmation that what my soul wanted might actually be good for it, in regard to the battle I fight between the poet in me and the dishwasher.
Her book repeatedly makes the point that everyone is creative, that creativity is hardwired, as it were, into what it takes to be human. She opens the book by telling us: "This is what I learned: that everyone is talented, original and has something important to say." The rest of the book, in one sense, is the persuasive case for this proposition.
Ueland wrote this book in the first half of the last century, after having taught hundreds of women in evening community classes at the YMCA. She quoted Burns and Blake and other poets, who had a love for God and an understanding of the creative self. She taught me that what we perceive as Imagination is often the Holy Ghost. I had missed that lesson in Sunday School. She also suggested that in order to be truly connected and creative we must be idle. Missed that lesson in Sunday School, too. She did not mean that we should embrace laziness, by any means. We must work hard at being idle. Turn off the television and the radio. Remove ourselves from temptations to flitter our time away with fulfilling tasks of a menial nature. She challenges us to be intelligently, purposefully idle; still enough to let the Holy Creator inside find a safe way out.

I began an exercise in stillness. This is a rare and difficult thing for someone living in a culture based on accomplishment. A strange and beautiful thing. Sort of like those magic pictures, where you stare and stare at jumbles of color and dots and swirls, knowing that if you look long enough and let go of trying to see what you THINK is there, you will eventually see what is REALLY there. In 3D no less.

Yup. Creative writing is magic pictures.
I pulled out my copy of If You Want To Write last month in preparation for a songwriting series I was teaching. Laid in my bed in the darkest hours, the little crook necked lamp clamped to my bedpost pulled down above my pillow so as to not wake Dave. The dim light washed over my little blue paperback. I first re-visited the picture of Ueland printed in side the cover. She was something like 90 years old in the picture, and she reminded me of Beetlejuice. Take a look and see for yourself:
Next, I instinctively opened to chapter 10; brushed my fingers over the page for some strange reason, like a blind person reading Braille. I shut my eyes a moment, imagining myself a young mother, torn with desire and demands, aching to have a voice and finding it crouched in the tight crevices of the binding of this book.
I wonder if down the road... way, way down the road…we will be surprised to see that what we thought we were supposed to be doing was a trick of the devil made to look all clean and tidy the way God likes things. I worry about this. Too much.
What I think I know is that the only way I can comfortably live my life is to invite that Imagination creature, some call it the Holy Ghost, to visit with me on a regular basis; He needs to be able to tap on my door and not be drowned out by the wheezing of the vacuum and the drone of the dishwasher or the chattering of the TV and iPod. Not that I have to live this way all the time; but I need to – purposefully - some of the time. I want Him to be safe enough, at least, to comfortably come in and sit a while. Welcome enough to whisper and smile and have me understand. It’s my welcome that makes Him feel at home with me, even if my house looks like the consequence of laziness. This is, I tell you…hoping you can understand… an intentional mess.


  1. I just caught up on all the posts I have missed over this last crazy week. You are amazing. I love your writings. I am so glad you are preserving these memories. It motivates me to be better at preserving my own thoughts and memories. Thank you for being so lovely.
    I love you.

  2. i love your imagination. i love that you are so in tune with the Spirit. i pray that the poet in you will always win out over the dishwasher!

  3. Be still and know that I AM!! Your stillness is so far from laziness. Just think years down the road, the fact that I could mop a floor will not matter to anyone but you have preserved who we really are for years and generations to come. I will mop your floor for you any day if you will please just keep writing for the rest of us!!

  4. I think that this is what is causing interference for me too. not because I'm DOING the work, but because I am awash in guilt for NOT doing it. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Who said that first? Does anybody ever look for credibility in an aphorism like that? Where were this persons creds? And did it never strike them that God created a significant amount of DIRT??? And grease???? And that things GROW in it? I've told you already, I think, about the sign my mother was so offended by - the one that hangs in my right now muddy vestibule: "Dull Women Have Immaculate Houses." with sub themes: "A clean house is the sign of a misspent life." And "Creative Minds are Rarely Tidy." These last two are pictured as samplers, covering two pillows on a nice pink couch. G bought it for me. And hung it where it is. My mother, who always denied being a good housekeeper, found them personally insulting.

    I did not take them down.

    Nobody has died of disease in this house. Or gotten e-coli poisoning. Or even a rash. Dust does not kill. Clutter does not choke. Chaos does not carry disease.

    So there.