A reissue of a classic work published in 1934 on writing and the creative process, Becoming a Writer recaptures the excitement of Dorothea Brande's creative writing classroom of the 1920s. Decades before brain research "discovered" the role of the right and left brain in all human endeavor, Dorothea Brande was teaching students how to see again, how to hold their minds still, and how to call forth the inner writer.
Brande states from the outset that she will not deal with issues of technique. Even in 1934, there were plenty of books and writing courses to give advice on plot, pacing, etc. In any case, her belief is that in most aspiring writers, the problems holding them back are not technical, but psychological. The reason people turn up to workshops and classes and buy endless books is not to learn the craft, but to discover the secret of being a great writer.
"In almost every case he will be disappointed. In the opening lecture, within the first few pages of his book, within a sentence or two of his authors’ symposium, he will be told rather shortly that genius cannot be taught; and there goes his hope glimmering."
The aspiring writer may not believe that he/she is looking to acquire the secret of a writer’s genius, but that’s really what it is, even if only unconsciously held – an idea that there is some kind of magic about writing. And Brande agrees: “I think there is such a magic, and that it is teachable. This book is all about the writer’s magic.”
The rest of the book contains a lot of practical advice on setting schedules, etc., all of which is good. But the part that really stood out for me was her discussion of genius. For her it is not a rare gift owned only by the likes of Shakespeare; rather it’s something that anyone can access, but most people don’t know how to. She says that writers should think of themselves as split personalities: a hard-working, sensible artisan, and a free-spirited, spontaneous, sensitive artist. Both sides must be in balance: too much spontaneity and the writing never gets done; too much sense and the writing gets done but is no good.
Having recognised this need for a split personality, it is then important to cultivate the sensitive “unconscious” side even as your workaday self gets you to your desk on time. One idea I loved was not talking about your writing until it is done. This is something I have always done without really knowing why – it just seemed to work better for me that way. Brande’s view is telling a story to friends before writing it down is very dangerous:
"Your unconscious self (which is your wishful part) will not care whether the words you use are written down or talked to the world at large... Afterward you will find yourself disinclined to go with the laborious process of writing that story at full length; unconsciously you will consider it as already done, a twice-told tale."
In addition, the unconscious is very sensitive to criticism, and the damage done by talking too freely can be severe:
"Send your practical self out into the world to receive suggestions, criticisms or rejections; by all means see to it that it is your prosaic self which reads rejection slips! Criticism and rejection are not personal insults, but your artistic component will not know that. It will quiver and wince and run to cover, and you will have trouble in luring it out again to observe and weave tales and find words for all the thousand shades of feeling which go to make up a story."
There’s so much other valuable advice in this book that I can’t summarise all of it. In fact, I feel as if I should read this book on a regular basis. So many of the ideas resonated with me, but they’re the sort of thing that are easy to forget when you’re mired in the routine of writing. So this is definitely one to keep on the shelf, and pull out at regular intervals, especially when things are getting tough and inspiration is hard to find.
Brande's assertions that writing was no longer for true craftsmen in the 30's because just about anybody "can afford a portable typewriter" had me cracking up because she would probably have an aneurism if she saw how just about anyone today could sit down and type up a few words via text or Ipad and call themselves a poet/writer.
Very insightful book. New writers read it even though you probably won't pay attention to its brilliance until at least a year or more later when you pick it back up and are struck across the brow at apt Brande's understanding of the writerly life truly was and is.
Ms. Brande focuses on the basics of writing (Get your butt in the chair at a certain time and WRITE, darn it!)
But she also focuses on ways to release your subconscious mind, because, she says, that's where your genius is. She also addresses the discouragement that many writers face, and gives helpful advice to overcome it.
She's witty, she's helpful, and she says things you won't hear in other 'how to write' guides.
Brande stresses the play of the unconscious in writing -- but without coming across as faux-psychologist. Brande makes you work, gets you writing, and that is exactly what I needed to get doing: I was doing far too much reading about writing.
With Brande, I wrote.
I'm not sure how original any of her theories might be -- although, remember, Brande was writing in 1934 -- and some of what she's writing about has become common fodder for writing books, but the presentation and coherency of Brande's approach kept my interest piqued. The pace of the book grabs you and pulls you into it. She stresses the need to keep moving, to push forward and let the unconscious do its work. At times, I felt like I was sprinting through the book, trying to keep up with her enthusiasm.
Here's an example --- and, for me, the exercise that re-sparked my own writing -- showing her practical advice, her way of making you feel you are engaged in something new, something adventurous. From Chapter 5: Harnessing the Unconscious:
The best way to do this is to rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can -— and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before -— begin to write.
Write anything that comes into your head: last night’s dream, if you are able to remember it; the activities of the day before, a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience. Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically. The excellence or ultimate worth of what you write is of no importance yet. As a matter of fact, you will find more value in this material than you expect, but your primary purpose now is not to bring forth deathless words, but to write any words at all which are not pure nonsense.
This exercise/technique not only brought back to me an enthusiasm for writing but also introduced an exploratory component to my writing -- just what was going to come out of the recesses of my mind? I can't over-stress the satisfaction of crawling out of bed, staggering to the computer, then -- half asleep, mind you -- pounding out 30 minutes of writing. It just flowed. The trick was to keep the censoring mind at bay and to see what my mind wanted to talk about. More than once, I found myself half-asleep at the keyboard, my mind making those crazy jumps that you often find in those after-the-alarm-rings half-dreams. The resulting story-scraps almost seemed as though written by another hand.
Don't focus on her explanation as to how this all works, especially if you are prone to over-analysis. Just do the work and see what it does for you. For me, it has done more than I could have hoped for.
Dorothea Brande launches straight into her programme. She starts by telling her readers to spend time each morning hand-writing. She puts no time limit or minimum amount on this, and acknowledges that it will probably be repetitive and muddled.
The next exercise is to set a specific time each day for writing, planned in advance. One therefore starts to look forward to that time, to treat it as a vitally important appointment. Indeed, the main point of the book is that we need to harness the will to write, to be disciplined in our use of time.
I’ve read other books that make similar suggestions, but never in such a straightforward way. Admittedly the text is long-winded in places, and the references to a typewriter are reminders that this is a very old book - first published over 80 years ago! But human nature doesn’t change; what the author describes as the anxieties of a writer are current today, and probably always will be.
I would recommend this highly to anyone who struggles to get started or to continue with writing of any kind, and hope to re-read it regularly.