“Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande

This is a wonderfully lucid book. I would not hesitate to take writing advice from Dorothea Brande, for the simple reason that her own writing is so elegant and clear. As I was reading, I was reminded of George Orwell’s dictum that good writing should be like a window pane. Brande’s book, written in 1934, is a perfect exemplar. It does not draw attention to itself, but simply communicates the author’s ideas in a clear, pleasing manner.

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.

2 thoughts on ““Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande

  1. I like the idea of making schedules to write. For years I woke up before work and wrote and got a lot of writing done. Now I’m getting up and reading – have to get back into my writing mode.

    By the way, do you think you could add Facebook to your RSS feed? I have a hard time keeping up with anything that’s not on my Facebook page.

    Ruth 🙂

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