Brenda lived most of her life writing and teaching in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the city where I grew up, and within a mile or two of where I have lived most of my life.
I was well into my forties before I even knew who she was, and from the moment I read her book: If You Want to Write I knew that I had found a mentor whose simple prose and honesty could guide me in the maturation of my own work.
Brenda, taught writing at the YWCA, she published a memoir about her life growing up in Minneapolis and she wrote as a columnist for local newspapers and magazines, she wrote for national publications like Harper’s as well.
Brenda was born in Minneapolis at the end of the nineteenth century; she spent her twenties in New York City where she was connected to various movements in arts, literature and politics. She was a proto-feminist and a revolutionary thinker, and she came to all of that with a simple self-assuredness that was her defining characteristic.
This is why she is a hero to me…her teaching, which she summarized in her treatise on writing, provides the most simple and profound guidance: she tells her students to find their own voice and write from there.
She encourages people to simply be themselves, to tell their stories with the written word as if they were speaking to their closest friend, to shout when they are shouting, and to whisper in the time of whispering.
She told them to be true to themselves, to write with authenticity, because she says: the reader will know if you are faking.
She encourages people to listen to themselves, and to become familiar with the sound of their own voice.
Her book on writing had been out of print for nearly forty years until, a few years after her death in the 1980’s when it went back into production and became a best seller.
Like Brenda herself, her book was ahead of its time, and is the best treatise on writing I have ever read.
Below is an essay I wrote as a response to her advice:
Inspiration and Futility
Alternating Between the Poles
This essay examines the role that inspiration has played in my creative life; as a writer, as a thinker, as an academic.
Inspiration is a broad and multi-faceted subject, I focus on three aspects: the moment, the content, and the expression of inspiration.
So that I may avoid engendering the misperception that my creative life has been an extended moment of awe, mystery and transcendence, I will also present a discussion of my struggles with a deep and pervasive sense of futility regarding my creative mission, a negativism that has dogged me like a cynic over the years.
I have a sharp sense for the inspired moment, moments that come in many ways, and not all of them my own.
There are not enough hours in the day for me to list the catalysts that have informed my creative drive, but when they come together, those disparate things and beings, those moments when memories interact with consciousness in real-time, when relationships become apparent that had never before been discerned, when, like alchemy, or a flash in the pan…wham!
The creative spirit comes.
In those moments, when my attention is keen, my attention is singular, a path toward the end of a creative ambition becomes clear, and my will becomes fixed on a specific set of steps, like the choreography of a dance. That is the inspired state, when burgeoning insight is precipitously balanced with a readiness to act.
These moments come to all of us, we sense them when they do. The wise will seize them, dwell within them, and linger in their space.
True inspiration is more than a feeling.
The truly inspired moment comes into consciousness with content, it is the flash that both illuminates and enlightens. It is a flare in the dark whose sudden eruption points the way, either out, or in.
When inspired content first springs to mind it is like that brief look you are allowed, of the image you are trying to construct from a jig-saw puzzle. There it is, in your mind, for a moment, and now you have to put it all together with only the memory of that vision to guide you.
The inspired moment is more than a feeling, more than awe, more than a sense of mystery, or of transcendence, but feeling is an essential part of it, and that feeling is not a tepid one.
Inspiration is light; yes, but not without heat. It is hot with imperative, with the command to do; to write, to stand, to move.
Inspiration is like the germination of a seed, a seed that is fully formed in its flower, and expressed completely in its fruit.
Inspiration is a force. It is dynamic. In a literal way, inspiration is the movement of the Spirit within us, enlivening, vivifying, it is as much a part of us as the air we breathe. It is a “divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the soul of humankind.”
To speak of inspiration in its aspects, or its parts, is somewhat artificial, perhaps impossible, as if when speaking of a wave you can name its peak, and its trough, without acknowledging that the two are essentially one, alternating and changing.
The inspired moment must be followed by a genuine enthusiasm for the work that lies ahead, enthusiasm which is itself synonymous for the indwelling of the divine. When the inspired moment comes we must find a way to let it be within us.
Inspiration is personal. It occurs in the lives of real people, and though it comes with great power, it is nevertheless subject to the cares and concerns of the individual, but the caring for it comes throughout the course of our daily lives.
Brenda Ueland says this about inspiration:
Inspiration does not (in fact) come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving but it comes to us slowly and quietly all of the time. But we must regularly and every day give it a chance to start flowing, and prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that when writing you should not feel like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another.
It may appear that Brenda has said something different or contradictory to what I said about inspiration in part I of this essay, but she and I are not necessarily speaking to divergent ends.
I have talked about the power of inspiration as a force, about its flash and dynamism. Brenda says that inspiration it is not that. I have been talking about the beginning of inspiration, she is talking about what comes after the inspired moment.
Brenda is talking about living with inspiration, about the inspired life that comes after the vision, she is talking about the falling rain, after the thunder claps and the clouds burst.
What Brenda is talking about is the more important part of inspiration. The inspired moment may fill us with vision and give us purpose, but nobody (nobody that I know of) can live out their lives in that ecstatic state.
Inspiration is like electricity. There is so much power in it. To stay in the inspired moment forever would burn us up.
The key to living with inspiration, to carrying out the inspired vision we have received, is to regulate that power. We regulate it through habit, ritual and disciplined work, like stringing beads together in kindergarten, Brenda says we must allow for some downtime, in order to give our circuitry a break.
Having space, being quiet, experiencing emptiness, these are essential for cultivating inspiration.
Doris Lessing, says in her Nobel acceptance speech: “Have you found that space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas—inspiration.”
Like Brenda Ueland, Doris Lessing is talking more about the care for, and the nurturing of, the creative-will within us, what I would call the expression of inspiration and the cultivation of its content. This is something that should be differentiated from the inspired moment itself.
In Part II of this essay, Nobel Laureate, Doris Lessing strikes the most vital point. She addresses the need to listen, to listen to one’s self.
It is altogether easy to listen to our inner critic, that insipid, clamoring voice knows exactly how to get our attention, but how much more important, and life giving is it to listen to our creative voice, to hearken to it music, and care for it, like the gardener who cares for the tender shoot as it pokes its stem up from the soil to unfurl its fronds.
For art to find its expression we must give our creative voice the attention it deserves, turn to it rather than the noisome din of the inner critic?
We must listen to the clear pealing of the bell, whether it is faint or loud.
Brenda Ueland said this in reference to the power of listening in her essay Tell Me More:
I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is, and how we forget it. And how we don’t listen…to those we love. And least of all, to those we don’t love. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.
When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life…It makes people happy and free when they are listened to.
When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. Now this little creative fountain is in all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination—whatever you want to call it. If you are tired, strained, have no solitude, run too many errands, talk to too many people, drink too many cocktails, this little fountain is muddied over and covered with a lot of debris. The result is that you stop living from the center…it is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising ways.
Take these words about listening, about how we feel when we are listened to and relate them to our creativity.
If we can slow down, be fascinated with our ideas, and attentive to our own needs, then we will have the time to express our creative voice.
If we listen to the stirring of the heart, that stirring will grow into a song, and then a chorus, with a symphony to follow. It will expand and unfold within us encompassing both our heights and our depths, extending itself throughout our lives while conjoining our peaks and troughs, making of them a singular unbroken wave.
What we have discussed to this point, in parts I – III of this essay, that is the flowering side of the garden. It is the place where we love to be, when everything is growing well and going right, but there are many times in our lives, countless times, when inspiration strikes and is not received. when it is received and not acted on, when it is acted upon and is not fulfilled.
There are many forces; both within us, and without, that are opposed to the power of inspiration. They are the menial and the mundane, the day to day duties that obscure our vision, the doubts that disrupt the voice of the muse, the cold fingers of fear clutching at the heart, tearing at the will, and the hand that stills them.
The death of inspiration comes through that inner critic, the one who tells us that our work is futile, frivolous, and useless, the one who spreads the debris and the clutter that covers the bright and bubbling fountain within us.
The Spirit blows where it will, and reaches everyone. The muses sing to us all. Whether we think of the force of inspiration as divine, as a gift that comes from without, or as an innate power that is inherent to our being, as our “true self” speaking to us. When the moment comes we must, each of us, fit it into our busy lives, either that or forget about it and watch it fade away.
Brenda Ueland says that “the true self is really the Conscience (or God)” not speaking to us about “morality or convention” but daring us to explore the “truth (in ourselves) toward bravery and the greater life.” When you find that truth, she says, your true self, “and see how gifted you are, you can write as slowly as you want to.” You can let the world be the world, and not let it set you off the course of fulfilling your vision.
The weal of our life will turn, our inspiration will rise with it, if we let it. We will lift from it, and jump off it, just as we reach the apex of the curve, or the moment will pass, as we cling to the wheel, as it turns around, and down we go, pushed into the ground of uselessness and futility.
I have been inspired, felt the spirit of inspiration move within me. I have been overcome by the hot flash of a great idea, felt the deep desire to act, heard the voice within me speaking; slowly, steadily, quietly; and at other times; fast, demanding, and loud. I have not always listened, but then again, I have not always known how.
The moment of inspiration can be startling. As awesome as inspiration can be, it is not always brought about by the sublime, the divine and the lovely. Truth, beauty, and goodness are not the only things that catch my attention or make me want to do something.
Sometimes I am moved by what is altogether mundane, human, and vicious, by evil, ugliness and lies. Sometimes I am moved not to stand up, but to take a stand, not to move, but to be unmoving.
When inspiration comes, the heart and the mind must be open. Inspiration may be triggered from outside of ourselves, from something we witness, such as the splendor of nature, a grand view, or a shocking event.
Inspiration may come from something small and simple, from a conversation, or a question. The moment may come, and go in an instant, leaving it up to us to make sense of its significance, to the mediation of our genius, or the daemon within us.
There is an encounter that plays itself out in my consciousness over and over again. The encounter between my inspiration, and futility, by which I mean doubt about the purpose I feel that I am directed toward.
This is the dialog between my creative self and my inner critic.
For instance, I have been, and I am inspired to share with Christians the gospel as I understand it, which is a gospel centered on the hope of universal salvation.
My first encounter with this doctrine came out of my own active imagination, a discourse with my daemon, if you will. It came by thinking logically about some of the most basic claims that Christians make about God: that God is love, and loving; that God is all-powerful (omnipotent), that God has the perfect ability to accomplish God’s will; that God is all-knowing (omniscient), that God knows us, understands us, even as we know ourselves; that God is omnipresent (not, not-present in any space), that God is with us and God wants us with God.
These claims led me to the logical conclusion that, when all things are said and done, there are no barriers to God having God’s way in the matter of our salvation.
If God truly wills the salvation of all people, which Christian doctrine claims that God does, then God will save all people.
My grasp of this argument came in a flash. It came as inspiration. It was both intuitive and revelatory, and it came when I was fairly young, at the age of fifteen.
In the ten years that followed I did not do much with this idea, except that I would using it in the occasional argument I might have with a fundamentalist Christian.
In that period there were moments when I would recapture that feeling of inspiration, but not every argument I pursued produced those feelings. When I would argue the doctrine with people who could grasp the logic, that feeling of inspiration would ignite inside of me, I would want to linger in the conversation and explore all of its implications, both in terms of human destiny, and in terms of the future of Christianity.
However, when my interlocutors could not grasp the logic, I often felt like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing that great rock up the hill. The same words and concepts that might delight me on one occasion, would on another occasion come out sounding like a drone in my ears.
Or, what was even worse for me were the occasions when I found myself talking and talking all night long, and really enjoying the sound of my voice, exalting in the feelings I got from my partner in dialog, or whoever else might be listening, but walking away at the end of it thinking that I had accomplished nothing more than the self aggrandized-stroking of my ego.
When I was twenty-five years old I was beginning to organize a research paper for my undergraduate major in theology. I deeply wanted to write about this doctrine. It was still inspiring me, and now it was motivating me to do something, to write, to research to demonstrate the validity of my claims in a formal way. I was moving beyond the arm-chair, outside of the coffee house, and though I was merely an undergraduate, I felt that I was doing real work in theology.
There was something else happening inside me as well. I was learning a lot. I was encountering more people, specifically, more educated people, people who wanted to argue with me, people who could hold up their end of the argument much better than the street corner variety of born-again-Christian.
I was also beginning to get a clear sense of the weight of history, of the philosophy of Christianity, its institutions, in its liturgy, and the power behind the traditional Christian doctrines that were arrayed against my simple logic.
It felt like that lil old ant, who thinks he can move that rubber tree plant. I had high hopes, but those hopes, and the inspired purpose that fueled them were frequently being assailed by a deepening sense of futility.
The question that my inner critic was asking me was this:
Is it possible for the most crystal-clear expression of the logic in Christian doctrine that I could change two thousand years of history and practice regarding the belief in hell and the theology of damnation?
Possible yes (I guess), but likely, no.
The creative spirit within me, my genius, was good at getting the last word, “keep working” it would say. “keep producing, keep on arguing.”
As an undergraduate I wrote my senior paper for my theology major on the topic of universal salvation, and then I doubled down on it and wrote my senior paper for my philosophy major on the same subject.
By the time I was done with that work, my research had uncovered some things for me.
The twentieth century had given the world many extremely intelligent, talented, philosophers and theologians who had been writing about this same topic. They were Oxford Dons, and University of Chicago Doctors, the alumni of one storied institution or another.
Their work inspired me. I wanted to lend my voice to theirs, carry on the good work, fight the good fight. However, the deeper I delved into the field, the more often I was faced with questions like this:
What is the point?
Why do I care?
If everyone is saved no matter what, why spend time and energy trying to convince people who do not believe it?
If in the end, it does not matter what a person believes, what church they belong to, why even bother with Christian Doctrine?
This is the voice of futility. It is my inner critic undermining me, attempting to convince me to give up, that the question that had inspired me was meaningless.
I learned that I was not the first person to be moved by this question, and not the first to resolve it. I learned that I would not be the last person to struggle with it.
Most importantly, I learned that there was very little that could be done to change the minds of the billions of Christians, Muslims, Jews and others who think and feel differently about our shared spiritual destiny. Most mono-theists, those who believe in some form of hell, they do not believe that God condemns people to hell because logic tells them so, they believe it because they want to believe it, because it makes them feel good.
I learned that logic, by itself, will not free them from those beliefs.
My education was doing two things, it was arming me with more evidence, more arguments, more history. It was preparing me with expanded powers to synthesize and communicate those ideas. At the same time, it was informing me that no matter how great my dialectical powers might become, I would have little power to persuade the hearts and minds of the unwilling.
As for the willing, well, they were already with me, and that is preaching to the choir.
This is the nexus where my inspiration and my sense of futility meet, where my genius and my inner critic were hanging out inside my head. What happens in this encounter is very important, not just for me, but for everyone.
If you want to be true to the movement of the spirit within you, you may be called to stay with it for a very long time. You must listen to yourself, to the stirring in your heart, the choir that is singing there, like the bubbling of a fountain.
I have spoken of inspiration as a flash, a flare, a fire within, but it is more than that.
Inspiration is more than a vision that brings a small bit of joy, a quick illumination, or a fragment of understanding. If it were only that, then the vision would be a mirage, the illumination would burn as quickly as lime, and the understanding it imparted would be superficial.
Inspiration, when it is true, is a call to action. Sometimes what the inspired moment calls you to do, can be done quickly, and then it is over. Other inspired moments can call you to rearrange your entire life, while you engage with the inspiration throughout. The longer the commitment, the greater the temptation will be to yield to the inner critic and allow the inspired moment fade away under the force of futility.
You cannot escape the forces of futility. They work on the will and the imagination like entropy. Futility will assert itself and be an active part of working out your calling. And here is the thing, if you are dealing honestly with that force, if you grapple with it, you will find renewed inspiration in that struggle.
When I was working out my master’s thesis, and in the years since, I discovered that, none of my good ideas about universal salvation were new. I figured this out early in my research, many modern philosophers and theologians had written about the things that I was thinking about. I learned that every generation of Christians since the time of Christ had someone in the global community saying these exact same things.
The discovery I was making, each new voice I found was met by me with a kind of joy. It was a comfort to read their thoughts, to understand my own thoughts as an echo of theirs moving forward in time. We were sisters and brothers in the struggle to share the most poignant ppiece of the gospel, to tell the really good news: believe not so that you may be saved, believe that you are saved already and rejoice.
Then slowly, inexorably the weariness would set in. The resignation that came from the understanding that all of these good people, all of us, we were all like exiles in Christianity, just a tiny minority within the bigger movement.
The temptation to yield to futility can lead you to a seed bed of new inspiration. This is kind of like a buddy movie, where the two characters do not really get along: your inner critic and your creative self, think of The Odd Couple, of Felix and Oscar, always on each other’s nerves, and yet they are the best of friends.
At first blush, futility and inspiration seem like they are diametrically opposed, one voice is calling you to action, the other is asking you to sit down. Each would like to eliminate the other, but they are both a part of what makes us human.
Futility, like drag, will slow us down, this is not always bad, it can give us the time and space to rethink our approach, to listen, and even give us insight into how to move ahead better. Just because our inner critic is a critic does not mean that she or he is wrong.
Remember the wisdom of Brenda Ueland, when she said:
The creative power is in all of you (us) if you just give it a little time, if you believe in it and watch it come quietly into you; if you do not keep it out by always hurrying and feeling guilty during those times when you should be lazy and happy. Or if you do not keep the creative power away by telling yourself the worst of lies—that you don’t have any.
Inspiration, if it is true, and we are true to it, will continually assert itself in our imagination, it will demand its place, find its voice, sometimes startling, sometimes quietly. That voice is yours, and mine. It will lead us out of the swamp, transform it into a verdant wetland, doing so in the light of our best expression, coming as fulfillment, and the radiance of joy.
 The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Inspiration, “1. Stimulation of the mind or the emotions to high level of feeling or activity. 5…Divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the soul of humankind.”
 Rollo May, The Courage to Create, p. 103 “Apollo spoke in the first person through Pythia…the god was said to enter her at the very moment of her seizure, or enthusiasm, as the root of that term en-theo (‘in-god’), literally suggests.” W. W. Norton Company, New York, 1975.
 Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: pp. 149-150. “Blake of course thought the imagination and inspiration (which we all have, as I have said) came from God and through God’s messengers; psychologists tell us it is rooted in the unconscious. But one explanation is as good another. I prefer Blake’s better because it is much easier to understand and more plausible…and remember the word enthusiasm means divine inspiration.” BN publishing, 2008
 Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: p. 47, BN publishing, 2008
 Doris Lessing, Acceptance Speech, Nobel Prize for Literature, 2007.
 Brenda Ueland, Tell Me More, Strength to Your Sword Arm, pp. 205-210, Holy Cow! Press, Duluth 1984.
 The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Futile, “1. Having no useful result. 2. Trifling, and frivolous; idle.”
 The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Muse, “1. Greek Mythology Any of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each of whom resided over a different art or science. 2. A guiding spirit.”
 Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: p. 121, BN publishing, 2008
 Both the Greeks and the Romans (as well as other ancient civilizations) had a highly developed notion of the duality of human nature. They each believed that our physical selves were accompanied by a spiritual being, coexisting with us on another plane of reality. The Romans called this spiritual counterpart our genius, and the Greeks called it the daemon; from these we get our terms “genius” and “demon.” A preference for Roman culture gave their word a positive connotation, and a pejorative connotation to the Greek cognate. Classical culture not only saw this aspect of ourselves as the point of contact between us and the divine realms, but the Roman word for this also means “begetter.” It is more than the aspect of ourselves that communicates inspiration, it is fundamentally the aspect of ourselves that oversees the production or the carrying our of what we have been inspired to do.
Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth, p. 631, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1995.
 Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: p. 46, BN publishing, 2008