Becoming A Writer Reread #2

becoming_a_writerBECOMING A WRITER

Dorothea Brande

This is the second instalment in my reread of Dorothea Brande’s remarkable 1934 book, Becoming a Writer. You can find part one here. In part one Dorothea Brande described the four key difficulties that prevent a person from writing. In the second chapter, she takes a closer look at what functional, professional writers are (generally speaking) like as a group.


Dorothea starts this chapter with a statement about, if these are the difficulties, they must be cured and immediately goes into an aside about organising life and relationships and expectations from loved ones. Much as with the first chapter, this is immediately and clearly a book about the psychology of writing, not the technique and craft. In fact, she goes as far as to say that:

…those books on your shelves on the technique of fiction, or those others which set up models of prose style for emulation, will look quite different to you, and infinitely more helpful [once you’ve got your writing life sorted out].

And then goes on:

If [this book] is successful it will teach the beginner not how to write, but how to be a writer; and that is quite another thing.

A tall order indeed. So how does Dorothea go about this? Her first subheading is on Cultivating a Writer’s Temperament. The first point she makes is that against the cliche, being an artist and having an artistic temperament does not require that a person be temperamental. In fact, wild moods and tempers are likely to be a problem, not a help, and belong more to a laypersons idea of what a writer ought to be rather than what is actually helpful. Dorothea makes a good point, that many people who want to be writers are not wild or moody, and maybe if they are told constantly that they ought to be they’ll end up questioning their own abilities or become extremely shy about completing any work at all out of a sense that it isn’t somehow the work of a ‘real writer’. Well, okay, this is mostly somewhat implied at this stage, but the next section makes this more explicit.

The next section is titled False and Real Artists and gets to some of the core of how people perceive what an artist ought to be and what an artist more frequently is. Here, Dorothea writes about the contrast between the idea of an artist as being childish in their moods, temperamental and long-suffering, and childlike in their outlook. Although she goes to some effort to point out that artists are also hard-working, versatile and studious, Dorothea makes a strong argument around artistic genius being childlike in its wonder, in its sense of newness, in its desire to engage with the strange or unexpected and in its capacity to see the correspondence between things. This connects well with modern ideas around creativity and what creativity is: which, when boiled down tends to be the putting together of things that are not usually put next to each other, seeing correspondences that are unexplored or not obvious to other people, or drawing together seemingly different things into a whole. ‘Deep brain’ activity as it is sometime called in creativity sciences, where signs of creativity in the brain as usually characterised by parts of the brain connecting up and firing together that usually would not.

Now, though, Dorothea points out that more than just ‘childlike’ is needed. Unruled creativity is one thing, but the writer needs another aspect to their personality, the discriminating and temperate. This gels well with my personal experience and with a lot of writers I think. Writing often does fall into two phases, the creative outpouring (often characterised by putting words on paper) and the critical phase (often characterised by editing what you’ve written). This connects up with the advice to turn off your internal editor while in the writing phase, and then switch it on with a vengeance in the cutting, reading and editing phase. Easy to say, not so easy to always do, of course. This requirement to have a dual or multiple-personality isn’t unique to writers. To some degree all people have multiple aspects to their personality – a work me – a home me – a pub me – a walking in the park alone me. All of these might well feel like different variations on a core inner self and none of them is more true than the other. I think the same is true of the ‘writer me’ and ‘editor me’. They’re both needed and neither is more important than the other, and it’s fine to feel like they are almost a bit distinct from each other.

At this point in the discussion Dorothea launches into surprisingly modern language around the integration of different personality aspects working together, to solve a problem, to arrive at a decision, to decide which way a story ought to move perhaps. She writes:

All these everyday miracles bear a relation to genius. At such moments the conscious and the unconscious conspire together to bring about the maximum effect; they play into each other’s hands, supporting, strengthening, and supplemented each other, so that the resulting action comes from the full, integral personality, bearing the authority of the undivided mind.

There then follows a startling passage in which Dorothea Brande in effect predicts the notion of the zone – the state of mind in which everything seems to flow naturally. After pointing out that anyone may feel in retrospect that they acted with unusual ‘decision and neatness in an emergency’, she writes that a genius is:

…one who habitually (or very often, very successfully)…  as it were, makes his own emergency and acts in it, and his willingness both to instigate and perform marks him off from his more inert, less courageous comrades.

That is a remarkable insight and we must of course also forgive Dorothea for her use of the male pronoun to mean all human beings. This was written in 1934 and the convention of using the male pronoun as the default was still extremely strong back then. Oddly enough, if you ever do get into an argument about this, Shakespeare used ‘their’ as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, so the ‘correct’ use of he/him for gender neutrality is probably not so very old or so very ‘correct’ as it was at one time made out to be… just an aside of course.

In the next section, titled rather like some sort of Jim Henson place, The Slough of Despond, Dorothea goes on to point out that actually this is all rather depressing. The realisation that writing is not simply sitting by the fire with slippers and a dog, or turning out page after page of timeless prose in a first-draft frenzy – but is actually a balancing act between wild creativity and hard harsh workmanlike dedication to craft is really quite hard to cope with for a lot of would be writers. Surely it should be easy? That’s sort of what society tells us. Isn’t an artists life difficult only inasmuch as it is driven by wild inspiration and fraught with being misunderstood by the masses? No? Carefully balancing critical judgment against the tended garden of creativity is needed? Turning out page after page through blood or sweat is needed?

That doesn’t doesn’t like fun.

Well, it is and it isn’t. It varies. It changes day to day. Some days are easy. Some days are difficult. But for a new writer, being confronted by the actual sheer reality of writing can be overwhelming. It can be easy to become to overly-careful with planning, or too wildly loose with the creative spirit, and being unable to balance this act can make a person feel that somehow there is something vital missing – humour or perspective or perhaps just a good old fashioned muse? It becomes easy to worry about one’s abilities. It become easy to become jealous of other writers – their sales or their talent or how young they managed to get themselves published.

This is a period in a writer’s life that sees a lot of people drop out of the game. They give up, turn away or keep on thinking that one day they’ll finish that book. I’d add to this, that Ira Glass’s observation that the difference between taste and skill comes into play at this point as well. When you are starting out at any creative or skilled endeavour it is probably because you already love that thing, be it comics or documentaries, radio, fiction or oil painting. But at the start you don’t really have the skill needed to make it yet – and worse – you do have the taste needed to see that your work isn’t up to scratch. The combination of not knowing how to balance the creative with the critical, and not realising that everyone starts out being not very good – there’s very seldom such a thing as a natural genius – crushes a lot of prospective careers.

Dorothea then makes a very interesting proposal. She suggests that actually, at this stage, working on craft isn’t necessarily what you should be doing anyway. Okay, so maybe you can see that you’re work isn’t quite up to snuff yet, but endlessly trying to fix your plots or dialogue or other matters of style will not be helpful if the problem is deeper. She finishes with this advice:

Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer – the craftsman and the critic in him – are actually hostile to the good of the unconscious, the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.

Good advice I think. In the next chapter we’ll see how it is implemented.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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  1. I like the remark about ‘artistic genius being childlike in its wonder’

  2. Christopher Johnstone

    When you really start to boil apart this book it is quite beautifully written. It’s very easy, however, to just skim over the stylistic elegance while taking in all the gems of wisdom instead of course.

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