BECOMING A WRITER
I first read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer after looking through a set of short writing advice pieces and noticing that at least three well-known authors advised it was essential reading, while no other book even got a mention. I remember one of those authors was Susanna Clarke, though I do not recall the other writer names. It doesn’t matter a great deal who they were – what matters is that they were right. I read Becoming a Writer and I felt immediately as if I were reading about all the secrets of writing that somehow I’d never noticed or heard mentioned. I’ve been intending to reread it for a couple years and this is as good a time as any.
I’ll work through the chapters (they are quite short, only a few pages each often) and make notes on my thoughts as I go.
The introduction to the work is fascinating. This book was first published in 1934 and Dorothea Brande describes a world that would be familiar to any would-be writer today, baring a few changes in writerly fads. She describes a world in which the would-be writer attends endless classes on writing and reads an overflowing number of books on writing all with the hope of understanding how good stories are told. I remember being actually a bit stunned to realise that the trade in writing classes and books goes back so far, and possibly earlier. It does imply that no-one has quite managed to get the teaching of it exactly right, or else surely we would have one or two acknowledged masterpieces on how to write rather than an endless sequence of half-remembered writing advice works, one mob replacing the last mob each decade.
Dorothea engages in another thing that strikes me as surprisingly modern – she apologises for talking about good fiction in a way that is very serious indeed. She feels a need to explain, elegantly that:
The importance of novels and short stories in our society is great. Fiction supplies the only philosophy that many readers know; it establishes their ethical, social and material standards; it confirms them in their prejudices or opens their mind to a wider world. The influence of any widely read book can hardly be overstated.
That in 1934 it was necessary to explain the importance of story in the world of the human mind and human society is perhaps not too surprising, though that it is often seen to be just as important to re-explain this again and again into the current day is frankly depressing. Is it simply a matter of the human condition that we find it hard to put real value to something as effortlessly illuminating as a good story well told? This is a point I’ll need to think a lot more about before I have anything serious to throw in for discussion. For now, I just want to say the whole idea that we are exactly where we were in 1934 in terms of how seriously we take the narrative arts is a little gloom-inducing.
Finally, Dorothea comes to explain why she decided on… adding to the top-heavy literature on the subject [of writing] at all. She states, quite clearly and simply, that most classes and most books on writing address the craft of writing, how to craft story and plots, how to delineate characters, how to elaborate a theme, how to weave words together – but few or no books address the actual problems that most new writers really have. These problems often stop a writer from producing at all, and they must be solved before all the best advice on craft will ever do any good for anyone. In the first chapter Dorothea goes onto to elaborate on these problems…
ONE: THE FOUR DIFFICULTIES
In the first Chapter, Dorothea Brande discusses the four key difficulties that she has observed over and again in beginning writers. These have little to do with craft or technique, and a lot to do with psychology and mode of thought. They are The Difficulty of Writing at All, The “One-Book Author”, The Occasional Writer and the Uneven Writer. Here, we immediately get a taste for how Becoming a Writer is a very different book to all those other books on writing. Rather than presenting the reader with gloomy statements about how perhaps some people just shouldn’t be writers, Dorothea Brande dismisses that attitude and states that her observation is that the people who have the most difficulty starting are also often those who produce the best work in the long run. Again, this perhaps should not be surprising – after all people who are more self-critical and more self-aware are more likely to be so self-conscious that they have difficulty even getting started with pen and paper (or fingers and keyboard), but they are also the people who are more likely to be able to really bring focus and thought and a critical knife to bear on their own work.
The Difficulty of Writing At All is what sometimes is referred to as beginner’s nerves. A person desperately wants to write, but simply cannot perhaps because of feeling overly self-conscious or self-critical. The “One-Book Author” has had some success with a single volume, but doesn’t seem to be able to produce another, and eventually risks being viewed as having only ever had the one book in them. The Occasional Writer needs a lot of down-time between writing projects and might produce brilliant but sparse work. The Uneven Writer tends to start well, but trail off into not quite finishing, or perhaps they can’t quite get the central theme of the story to work, so that the story ends up feeling a little bit dead and lacking conviction.
All four of these problems, Dorothea emphasises, are less to do with technical ability and much more to do with the writer’s psychology.
The only one of these I want to comment on in depth is The Occasional Writer. This is very far from my experience, as I was and perhaps still am much more of an Uneven Writer, but I wanted to talk a little about The Occasional Writer because in the current day, we now understand that this is sometimes a sign of a personality leaning towards a bipolar state, and for some writers, this cannot be eliminated – only understood and managed. Alan Garner’s The Voice That Thunders is the only book I know of that unflinchingly examines an author’s own struggles with bipolar disorder, and it may also help explain why Alan Garner takes such a long time between his fiction stories. I suspect that he is The Occasional Writer who did not want to correct himself out of the habit – being occasional means that he channels so much more creative power into a smaller set of stories, and I think that is a valid approach to writing.
At any rate, Dorothea Brande doesn’t think any of these states are curses that will irrevocably hold you back from a writing life. And in the next chapter, What Writers are Like, she starts to explore some ways forward.