Author Archives: storycirclenetwork

Wisdom from Brenda Ueland on Writing & Creativity

Sometimes it’s helpful to get a little inspiration from a master. Brenda Ueland, the author of If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit falls into that category. Carl Sanburg, for example, is quoted as saying that Ueland’s book was “the best book ever written on how to write.” I thought I would share a few of Ms. Ueland’s insights for those of us who love writing but sometimes could use a bit of bolstering. I hope you will find her words as inspiring as I have. 

From Brenda Ueland:

“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.”

“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. ”

“Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his *true* self and not from the self he thinks he *should* be.”

“No writing is a waste of time – no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good.”

“Yes, I hate orthodox criticism. I don’t mean great criticism, like that of Matthew Arnold and others, but the usual small niggling, fussy-mussy criticism, which thinks it can improve people by telling them where they are wrong, and results only in putting them in straitjackets of hesitancy and self-consciousness, and weazening all vision and bravery.

…I hate it because of all the potentially shining, gentle, gifted people of all ages, that it snuffs out every year. It is a murderer of talent. And because the most modest and sensitive people are the most talented, having the most imagination and sympathy, these are the very first ones to get killed off. It is the brutal egotists that survive.”

“I found that many gifted people are so afraid of writing a poor story that they cannot summon the nerve to write a single sentence for months. The thing to say to such people is: “See how *bad* a story you can write. See how dull you can be. Go ahead. That would be fun and interesting. I will give you ten dollars if you can write something thoroughly dull from beginning to end!” And of course, no one can. ”

“Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.”

Carl Sandburg knew a thing or two, that’s clear. And when it came to Brenda Ueland, he appears to have known quite a lot.

Helen (Len) Leatherwood has been teaching writing privately to students in Beverly Hills for the past twenty years. She also is the coordinator of Online Classes for Story Circle Network. Len has published numerous pieces in literary journals. She is a Pushcart nominee in fiction. Her work also appears in A Cup of Comfort Cookbook, currently available on Amazon. Her blog, 20 Minutes a Day, can be found at


Revising Passive Voice to Active Voice

“Her steps were tentative. Fiona wasn’t sure she could avoid the captain’s anger, if he showed up. However, the anticipation of viewing the sky with Jacob who always looked out for her was new emotional territory. She followed him.” (43 words) 

What’s wrong with that paragraph? Three of the four sentences are passive. Active voice is always preferred over passive, because we can see the action as we read and it is more dynamic. 

How do we identify passive voice to change it? A writer can identify passive voice in a sentence by looking for “to be” verbs, like “was,” “were,” “had been,” or “would get to be.” Below see the passive sentence, an improved one with an active verb. It reads more naturally and the reader can see what kind of action is in play. 

Then see a better version to add clarity or reads even more naturally from at least one writer’s viewpoint. 

  • PASSIVE: Her steps were tentative. 
  • ACTIVE: She trod forward. 
  • BETTER: She trod behind Jacob with caution. 
  • PASSIVE: Fiona wasn’t sure she could avoid the captain’s anger, if he showed up. 
  • ACTIVE: Fiona did not know whether she could avoid angering the captain, if he showed up. 
  • BETTER: Fiona did not know if she could avoid Captain Best’s anger, if he saw her again. 
  • PASSIVE: The anticipation of viewing the sky with a man who always looked out for her was new emotional territory.
  • ACTIVE: New emotional territory frightened Fiona as she anticipated viewing the sky with a man who always looked out for her. 
  • BETTER: She did not know how she should act when she stood alone next to Jacob viewing the sky. 

Improved paragraph: 

“She trod behind Jacob with caution. Fiona, however, did not know if she could avoid Captain Best’s anger, if he caught her again. In addition, she didn’t know how she should act when she stood alone next to Jacob viewing the sky. She decided to follow him to the bow anyway.” (55 words) 

SUMMARY: Though the word count increases, it now reads more clearly and naturally. We use passive voice in conversation, so it sounds natural. However, when read in sentence after sentence and page after page, it becomes monotonous.

Rhonda Wiley Jones

With a M.Ed. in adult education, Rhonda Wiley-Jones is a professional training and staff development specialist. She leads conference and community workshops on creativity, journal writing, intentional travel, travel journal writing, craft of writing, and travel writing.

Rhonda is author of her coming-of-age travel memoir, At Home in the World: Travel Stories of Growing up and Growing Away, and just completed her first novel and is seeking an agent. Her publications can be found online and in print in various publications, including as travel columnist for two local lifestyle magazines in the Texas Hill Country, as well as published in SCN’s Inside and Out: Women’s Truths, Women’s Stories (2018 Anthology).