Brenda Ueland tried running up a mountain in her eighties, walked nine miles a day and wrote five or six million words of journalistic columns in her lifetime - including the classic 'If You Want to Write' which has sold some 140,000 copies as a paperback (published by Graywold Press in the States). She believed in being herself:
'You cannot have enough pride or egotism or energy or bravery, but it must be centrifugal (generous) and not centripetal (greedy)'
I believe in wonderful egotism, in being 'kingy', that the malaise of the world is so-called modesty, usually a form of conceit. I believe that we should all have a reckless indomitable, arrogant, joyful blaze of self-esteem, self-trust, self-belief. You cannot have enough pride or egotism or energy or bravery, but it must be centrifugal (generous) and not centripetal (greedy). 'So it is with people who have not been listened to in the right way - with affection and a kind of jolly excitement. Their creative fountain has been blocked'
This and the summarised extract that follows are from her wonderful book 'Strength to Your Sword Arm: Selected Writings' published by Holy Cow! Press (1992., ISBN 0 930100 50 6. The book is available for $16. 70 postpaid from Holy Cow! Press, Box 3170, Mt. Royal Station, Duluth, MN 55803; tel 0101 218 724 1653). A fuller version of these extracts appeared in Utne Reader magazine No. 54 (Subs. $28, LENS Publishing Co Inc, 1624 Harmon Place, Suite 330, Minneapolis, MN 55403, USA, tel 0101 612 338 5040).
I have a kind of mystical notion. I think it is only by expressing all that is inside that purer and purer streams come. It is so in writing. You are taught in school to put down on paper only the bright things. Wrong. Pour out the dull things on paper too - you can tear them up afterward - for only then do the bright ones come. If you hold back the dull things, you are certain to hold back what is clear and beautiful and true and lively. So it is with people who have not been listened to in the right way - with affection and a kind of jolly excitement. Their creative fountain has been blocked. Only superficial talk comes out - what is prissy or gushing or merely nervous. No one has called out of them, by wonderful listening, what is true and alive.
I discovered all this about three years ago, and truly it made a revolutionary change in my life. Before that, when I went to a party I would think anxiously: 'Now try hard. Be lively. Say bright things. Talk. Don't let down.' And when tired, I would have to drink a lot of coffee to keep this up.
'To be in their shoes when they talk, without arguing, or changing the subject'
Now before going to a party, I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk, to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject. No. My attitude is: 'Tell me more. This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically to talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive.'
'This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will show his true self'
Recently, I saw a man I had not seen for 20 years. He was an unusually forceful man and had made a great deal of money. But he had lost his ability to listen. He talked rapidly and told wonderful stories and it was just fascinating to hear them. But when I spoke - restlessness: 'Just hand me that, will you? ... Where is my pipe?' It was just a habit. He read countless books and was eager to take in ideas, but he just could not listen to people.
'When he has been really listened to enough, he will grow tranquil. He will begin to want to hear me'
Well, this is what I did. I was more patient - I did not resist his non-listening talk as I had my father's. I listened and listened to him, not once pressing against him, even in thought, with my own self-assertion. I said to myself: 'He has been under a driving pressure for years. His family has grown to resist his talk. But now, by listening, I will pull it all out of him. He must talk freely and on and on. When he has been really listened to enough, he will grow tranquil. He will begin to want to hear me.'
And he did, after a few days. He began, asking me questions. And presently I was saying gently:
'You see, it has become hard for you to listen.'
He stopped dead and stared at me. And it was because I had listened with such complete, absorbed, uncritical sympathy, without one flaw of boredom or impatience, that he now believed and trusted me, although he did not know this.
'Now talk,' he said. 'Tell me about that. Tell me all about that.'
Well, we walked back and forth across the lawn and I told him my ideas about it.
'Listening is love, that's what it really is'
'You love your children, but probably don't let them in. Unless you listen, people are wizened in your presence; they become about a third of themselves. Unless you listen, you can't know anybody. Oh, you will know facts and what is in the newspapers and all of history, perhaps, but you will not know one single person. You know, I have come to think listening is love, that's what it really is.'
Well I don't think I would have written this article if my notions had not had such an extraordinary effect on this man. For he says they have changed his whole life. He wrote me that his children at once came closer, he was astonished to see what they are: how original, independent, courageous. His wife seemed really to care about him again, and they were actually talking about all kinds of things and making each other laugh.
'The most serious result of not listening is that worst thing in the world, boredom; for it is really the death of love'
For just as the tragedy of parents and children is not listening, so it is of husbands and wives. If they disagree they begin to shout louder and louder - if not actually, at least inwardly - hanging fierceIy and deafly onto their own ideas, instead of listening and becoming quieter and quieter and more comprehending. But the most serious result of not listening is that worst thing in the world, boredom; for it is really the death of love. It seals people off from each other more than any other thing. I think that is why married people quarrel. It is to cut through the non-conduction and boredom. Because when feelings are hurt, they really begin to listen. At last their talk is a real exchange. But of course, they are just injuring their marriage forever.
Besides critical listening, there is another kind that is no good: passive, censorious listening. Sometimes husbands can be this kind of listener, a kind of ungenerous eavesdropper who mentally (or aloud) keeps saying as you talk: 'Bunk ... Bunk ... Hokum.'
'Creative listeners are laughing and just delighted with any manifestation of yourself, bad or good'
Now, how to listen? It is harder than you think. I don't believe in critical listening, for that only puts a person in a straitjacket of hesitancy. He begins to choose his words solemnly or primly. His little inner fountain cannot spring. Critical listeners dry you up. But creative listeners are those who want you to be recklessly yourself, even at your very worst, even vituperative, bad-tempered. They are laughing and just delighted with any manifestation of yourself, bad or good. For true listeners know that if you are bad-tempered it does not mean that you are always so. They don't love you just when you are nice; they love all of you.
In order to learn to listen, here are some suggestions: Try to learn tranquility, to live in the present a part of the time every day. Sometimes say to yourself: 'Now. What is happening now? This friend is talking. I am quiet. There is endless time. I hear it, every word.' Then suddenly you begin to hear not only what people are saying, but what they are trying to say, and you sense the whole truth about them. And you sense existence, not piecemeal, not this object and that, but as a translucent whole.
Then watch your self-assertiveness. And give it up. Try not to drink too many cocktails, give up that nervous pressure that feels like energy and wit but may be neither. And remember it is not enough just to will to listen to people. One must really listen. Only then does the magic begin.
Sometimes people cannot listen because they think that unless they are talking, they are socially of no account. There are those women vith an old-fashioned ballroom training that insists there must be unceasing vivacity and gyrations of talk. But this is really a strain on people.
No. We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more beloved, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective, and learns more and does more good. And so try listening. Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don't, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.
How to talk with kids - advice to the shapers of the next generation
Don't ask your poor children those automatic questions - 'Did you wash your hands, dear?' - those dull, automatic, querulous, duty questions (almost the only conversation that most parents have to offer). Note the look of dreadful exhaustion and ennui and boredom that comes into their otherwise quite happy faces. And don't say, 'How was school today, dear?' which really means: 'Please entertain me (mama) who is mentally totally lazy at the moment with not one witty or interesting thing to offer, and please give me an interesting and stimulating account of high marks.'
Years and years ago when my child was four years old, I suddenly learned not to do this. I learned - a bolt from Heaven - never to ask an automatic question, so boring, so mentally lazy, so exhausting. No, I would myself tell her something interesting and arresting: 'I saw Pat Greaves next door running and bawling because he was being chased by a strange yellow cat.' My child's eyes would sparkle with interest, and there we were, in the liveliest conversation, and behold! she was soon telling me the most interesting extraordinary things, her own ideas. At our meals together I felt that it was I, not she, who must be the wit, the raconteur, the delightful one, the fascinated listener to her remarks, the laugher at her jokes. Now, the light in a child's eyes is a splendid gauge and tells you in a split second if you are failing and becoming a bore and a schoolmarm. She has liked me ever since.
Another aspect of the same thing is this: I say to those youngish parents (the vast majority these days) who are exhausted by their children and, with pale, neurasthenic frowns on their foreheads, are always pleading, 'Plee-ase go to bed, dear ... Plee-ase now Jack, Sally, Jane, go in the other room dear and look at television.'
'No,' I say, 'you are doing it wrong. You are failing as parents. You should be so vigorous, healthy, in the pink of condition (cut out all the smoking and drinking and coffee breaks), so inexhaustible, rambustious, jolly, full of devilry and frolic, of stories, of dramatisations, of actions, of backward somersaults, or athletics and tomfoolery, of hilarity, that your children at last after hours of violent exercise, worn down by laughter and intellectual excitement, with pale, neurasthenic frowns on their foreheads cry: 'Plee...eease, Mama, go to bed!'