Becoming A Writer Reread #3

becoming_a_writerBECOMING A WRITER

Dorothea Brande

This is the third 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. In part three, Dorothea takes a closer look at the advantages of splitting yourself into two people in your writing life.


I have to confess that this is a chapter I have tended to skim over pretty quickly on previous reads. Partly, I suppose this is because I feel I already do this pretty well. I’m reasonably good at turning on my ‘inner editor’ after I’ve finishing writing a story and disassociating the editor me from my writerly me. I’m also not bad at disassociating my business self from my writer self. By the ‘business self’ I mean the part of me that has to deal with writing plot synopses, cover letters and submissions, sending material out to the big bad world and dealing with the knock backs from publishers.

I think I first became aware of this split back in the 1990s when the SWFA was pretty much the only source of articles on writing online (regardless of genre) and they divided their articles into ‘The Craft’ and ‘The Business’ and that made me stop and think, ‘Oh. I guess those are different skills then?’

But, I’ve taken some time to reread Chapter 3, and there are some really useful titbits in here, regardless of how well you feel you might already be dissociating your writer, editor and business selves. Dorothea Brande I should clarify doesn’t use a tripartite systems, she divides the self only in two pieces. That’s more just my way of thinking of things.

First off, Dorothea emphasises how important this personality splitting is (and it really, really is. I honestly think the only way writers stay sane is by being able to dissociate a publisher rejection from the actual act of writing). To this end, she starts with an examination of The Process of Story Formation.

Dorothea takes us through her thoughts on how stories form in order to demonstrate that it is a two-phase process. In the first step the unconscious runs wild and must be allowed to smoothly throw up ideas and characters and scenes and stories. These will tend to be of story-types (think archetype but more broad) because people tend to think in types. However, the unconscious may tend to gravitate towards one or two particular story-types, or it may tend to create stories that are too specific to the writer (and therefore seem a bit inaccessible to readers) or it may be too universal (so that the story seems like a fairytale with no verisimilitude or detail needed to make it seem real).

The next step is the conscious step, where the writer has to be critical and self-aware enough that they can be aware of their own tendencies to write stories about magical teenage girls, or misunderstood monsters, or struggling ordinary people with hearts of gold (to make up some examples), and also be aware of their tendency to be too general or too specific, and then mix and match ideas and rework the basic unconscious story so that the writer is not simply repeating themselves over and over. Dorothea points out as an aside that the tendency for the human brain to have favourite story-types makes a lot of technical advice on plots somewhat redundant, or at least difficult to apply because you will be attempting to take someone else’s core story-types and force them to fit the story-holes in your own imagination.

The chapter goes on to explain that people might be dominated by the unconscious or the conscious, but that with care and training a person can put their unconscious at the service of their conscious, or vice versa. She elaborates out this metaphorical dualism, until we have a system in which a sensitive, emotional, childlike unconscious is given the job of raw creation and the clinical, critical, hard-edged conscious has the job of being as much as possible, critical but fair, detached but attentive, interested but tolerant of the creative side of the self.

We have here also an interesting aside about the non-writer’s reaction to finding out that a friend or an acquaintance is either wanting to become a writer (in the sense of becoming published – they are after all probably already writing) and/or already is a published writer. I’ve never encountered this particular response, but I have heard others relate it: that a person may clam up entirely and act extremely unnaturally, as if they are afraid you are going to steal their life story and make a million off it just by talking to them. I’m told this can happen and I’ve no reason to doubt it. Dorothea’s advice is simply, be quiet about being a writer when you can, else you will ‘startle your quarry’. This will help you with that other problem writers complain about, which is people telling you they have a great idea for a story and if you will only write it for them they will graciously split the profits 50:50. Although to be honest, I’ve never encountered that problem either. Ah well. Onward.

Now comes a bit of advice I found utterly invaluable when I first read it. Another good reason to be quiet about your writing is that there is a strong risk someone will ask what you are writing and there is a strong risk you will tell them all about your story under work. This isn’t a risk for the reason some new writers think… no-one is going to steal you’re wonderful story idea. It doesn’t work that way. The execution is what counts, not the idea. Rather, once you’ve told the story that is burning to be told, even just in conversation, you’ve addressed some of that need to tell it. Tell it a couple times and you may find the urge to actually write it vanishes away completely. I’m convinced there are a lot of struggling writers who lose interest in their novel half-way through and don’t realise that one reason might be because they’ve already told the story to their partner, parents, friends or even just that stranger on the tram. Keep quiet about your stories until they are on paper. Then you can tell everyone, and loudly, but keep quiet to begin with.

Leaving this aside, Dorothea goes on to point out other advantages of being two people. Your critical side can provide a rampart between your creative self and the harsh realities of the world, whether that be rejection slips or bad reviews. You will also benefit from allowing your critical side to observe your creative self and deduce what it is that inspires that shy creature and puts it in a mood to put words to paper. You need to work out what forms of relaxation help you write, and which books will spark your interest and writing and which will not. This is not always straightforward. Some people have a favourite author but avoid reading that author’s works at all costs while working on a story because the sense of inferiority is too much to cope with. Some people like to read bad writing to fire them up with a sense of ‘I can do better than that’.

The final problem that can present itself is that the conscious, intellectual side of the self can get out of control. This is often at the root of people saying that they can’t ‘switch off the internal editor’. If you are critically rewriting, examining and deleting sentences as you write to the point that nothing at all is produced, then your critical side might be a little too much in control of the process. You need to let go, let yourself write however badly you think you are writing, finish the work and then and only then come back to it and read it with a critical eye (often best done after a couple weeks or even months have gone by to give you enough time to properly dissociate).

Finally, the chapter ends with an exercise which is intended to encourage the writer to be more self-observational. Dorothea emphasises that observation of one’s own habits is useful only up to a point, and this should be discarded once you’ve done enough (being infinitely lost in introverted consideration of the self can be just as paralysing as anything else). Basically, she advises you to try to think what you look ike from the outside, think about what someone else could garner from your appearance only, or from your walk or the way you say hello to people. What if you were followed by a ‘fiction eye’ a little above your head for a day? What sorts of habits would be noticeable? What sort of proclivities or idiosyncrasies?

You can try this if you like. I’m not a particularly self-reflective person, so I found this useful, though you may already spend a lot of time in reflection and therefore find it less useful. The idea is to get you used to paying attention to yourself which is often the first step to behavioural change.

The next chapter examines advice taking, which can be a bit of a curse for a writer, either because they try to take on every piece of advice they receive or they take none of it.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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