Book Review: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Becoming a Writer was one of the first books about the writing process I ever read. It was written way back in the 1930s, and remains popular today, almost eighty years after its publication. This is quite an achievement, especially when you consider how many books have been written on writing in the last few decades.

However, I done the research then that I did today before starting this review, I might never have read it. You see, I have always been what could be called a bleeding-hearted liberal, and apparently Dorothea Brande was married to Seaward Collins who admired Hitler and Mussolini and considered himself a fascist – at least during the 1930s. It seems that the politics of Brande herself were possibly slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. As well as Becoming a Writer, she wrote Wake Up and Live, a self-help book that sold well and that exhorted its readers to strive to better themselves and rise above others. I haven’t read Wake Up and Live, so can’t really comment on its contents, although according to Joanna Scutts, writing in The Nation, “there is nothing democratic about 1930s self-help.”  It doesn’t sound as if was the gentle compassionate kind of self-help I promote on this blog and in 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion

Photo by Rattigon via Freedigitalphotos

All of the books about the the writing process that I’ve reviewed so far (Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) have a deep sense of compassion in them. It’s true Brande does have empathy with the beginning writer who struggles with self-doubt in his ability (Becoming a Writer was published in 1934, when sexism may not even have been a word, so the beginning writer she refers to is always “he.”) It’s also true she has a brusque way of writing that borders on bossiness at times. You must get up early each morning write for at least fifteen minutes each day. You must schedule a time to write each day and stick to it. So if your chosen time is 4 o’ clock you must stick to this each day. If you can’t do this, Brande says, then you might as well give up trying to be a writer and go stack shelves in Walmart instead. (Well that’s not quite what she said, but it’s the modern day equivalent.) So, yes, I can see that Scutts has a point.

Nevertheless, Becoming a Writer  does contain a lot of useful advice – which explains why it remains so popular. Indeed Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” are very similar to Brande’s suggestion to write for fifteen minutes every day immediately upon waking. Both also advise (well Cameron advises, Brande demands) that you shouldn’t read over what you wrote for several weeks. And of course, Brande said it first.

She also says, “the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind.” I have a feeling someone else said something similar to that in a post on this blog just two days ago. In fact, several someones said it, since everyone who commented also agreed. This is why Brande insists writers should get up early to write: that early morning writing comes from the unconscious mind. She also says that writers need to cultivate the “dual character of the genius” and says first of these is: “the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness of a child, the ‘innocence of eye.'” The second is: “adult discriminatory temperament, and just…the the critic rather than the artist.”

This second side, of course, is what needs to be in charge if we are to follow Brande’s rules and write at the same time each day. It is also the side that needs to be in charge when we rewrite and edit.

Brande writes a lot about the genius. He’s the man who “habitually acts as his less gifted brothers rarely do.” Of course, if we all learned to habitually act like geniuses, then genius would become commonplace. And maybe it is, because Brande also says that the genius often doubts himself and so runs into difficulties. She identifies four difficulties us geniuses face on our path to greatdom.

These four difficulties are…

  • Writing at all.
  • The one book writer.
  • The occasional writer.
  • The uneven writer.

The first one means exactly what it says – that you can’t get started at all. The second means that a writer has “early success but is unable to repeat it.” The occasional writer produces very good work – very slowly. Brande gives the example of a female student of hers who had till then produced one very good short story a year. (I wonder if this student was also a mother?) Finally, the uneven writer might start a story well, but not be able to finish it, or some aspects of their stories don’t work.

Although Brande  was, in general, scathing about standard creative writing classes that taught structure, plot, characterisation etc, she does say that these classes can be of some help to the uneven writer. But she says the real difficulty “has set in long before the story form is in question.” The issue is lack of confidence.  I tend to agree with her, and think that it is important to learn techniques and to work on confidence in our writing.

The truth is that whether Brande was a fascist or not, her book does have a lot to offer the beginning writer, and is even worth reading if you have been writing for a while but feel a little stuck or stale. Just don’t take the bossy side of her too seriously and remember that even she has two sides. The best advice to remember as you read is in a section on recreation where she says: “you are to be your own best friend – not simply your stern and disciplinary elder.”

 

Comments

  1. I’m surprised she came off as a fascist to you! I got the opposite impression from various off-the-cuff opinions that she revealed, like how students shouldn’t be forced to work through college and her general attitude toward things like hypnotism, the unconscious, etc.

    I thought the message of Wake Up and Live was very egalitarian: Everyone – introvert, extrovert, rich or poor – is wasting their potential, and everyone can reclaim it with a little help and practice.

    She does have a strict, school-marmish tone that I attributed to the formalness of the times, but I actually found both books to be very encouraging – like a mom who’s extra good at cheering you up precisely because she doesn’t tend to get all emotional about everything else.

    I had her totally pegged as a liberal (maybe because I’m conservative and subconsciously look for slights against my worldview in everything I read). Not that it mattered. Interesting how two people can come to such different conclusions from the same material.

    1. Author

      Yes, it is interesting that people can come to different conclusions, though I didn’t come to that conclusion from Brande was fascist by reading “Becoming A Writer.” Like you, I enjoyed it and found it useful at the time. It was only when I did some research on her before writing this review that I read about her links to fascism.

  2. Yep. I’m on Chapter 14 and just today decided to google her. I’m a little shocked. Where did you find your info? I found mine on Wikipedia and IMDb. I was reading the article about self-help books, including hers in the 1930’s and ’40’s on The Nation until I was kicked off for having read (they said) my quota.

    Found myself wondering if her husbands’ fascist sympathies had anything to do with being so well known in publishing and believing a monarchical fascist leader would give him more power.

    I guess there’s more to learn about her in the context of history and how Americans could be influenced toward European fascism. Liking Hitler!? Ug. This is sort of reminding me of a current political candidate.

    1. Author

      Carolyn, most of what I found out was from that article on the Nation, and on Wikipedia. There’s not a lot about her. I try to keep an open mind, but the Facist sympathies of her husband seem beyond dispute, but her involvement with it is less clear. It’s a pity you didn’t manage to finish reading Scutt’s article in the Nation, because it is very interesting.

      Scutt’s says Brande’s book “Wake up and Live” (which I haven’t read) encourages you to think you are superior to others if you are successful. I suspect that in the end Brande was a mix of beliefs, possibly influenced by her husband.

      And yes, it is somewhat concerning that similar politics still appear, not just in the USA, but all over. In the UK (where I am) we don’t have anyone quite so blatantly racist at the level Trump has reached, but there’s a few come close.

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