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.”