Becoming A Writer Reread #5

becoming_a_writerThis is the fifth in my reread series of Dorothea Brande’s Becoming A Writer – seminal 1934 book that helped for the bedrock of a lot of modern writing advice.

You can find the first post here.

Today we are looking at Chapter 5: Harnessing the Unconscious.

The very first thing I want to note is that I note the use of ‘unconscious’ rather than ‘subconscious’. This is a fine split of hairs, but I always prefer unconscious because at some point in the past someone, somewhere pointed out to me that subconscious implies being below or less important than the conscious.

Alright. That’s off my chest now. Let’s move along with the reread. Dorothea starts with the instruction that we need to teach the unconscious to feed into writing, or as she rephrases it:

The first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious to your writing arm.

I am repeatedly surprised by this reread. In the first couple pages of this chapter, under the heading Wordless Daydreams, Dorothea outlines a complete theory of why people write fiction and why people read fiction. She takes care to note that this isn’t the only reason people read and write, but I’m struck at once by how it does explain a lot of fiction.

The theory is a fairly straightforward one. A lot of people as children have daydream lives – this might be dreaming about doing things past slightly differently and better or it might be dreaming about good things that will happen. But as time goes on most of us realise that we are not special heroes or heroines of this world, and daydreams about a ‘glamourous guise’ (to use Dorothea’s words) are better abstracted into the third person, and shifted away from the self to make them more digestible. This leads people to write stories about imaginary people. The story appeals to a reader because most people find that life grinds them down to the point of not being about to see themselves in a ‘glamourous guise’ at some point or another and reading a story becomes a necessary psychological escape.

Fiction as wish fulfilment and escapism is hardly a new idea – but framing this inside a need to objectify the ideal self of naive daydreams into a form that a cynical, worldweary adult mind can accept strikes me as coming at the problem of why we enjoy stories from an interesting direction.


Dorothea Brande next makes a couple notes on the benefits of doing some time in the journalist mines before a career as a fiction writer – although she thinks they are largely only that journalism teaches you that you can write without fatigue for hours if you need to and that initial exhaustion once broken through does lead to a second wind. I’m also thinking of Neil Gaiman though, who did work as a journo for sometime before his comic writing career took off. I seem to remember him saying that he also learned how to write to a set number of words, how to look for the story in an ordinary event and how to sell stories as a freelancer, all of which could be important too.

However, the guts of this section is a recommendation on an exercise that forms a first step towards ‘effortless writing’.

  • Get up a half hour or hour earlier than you usually would
  • Before you have read anything and before you are fully awake sit down and write a page of something
  • It doesn’t matter what you write. Anything that comes to mind is fine. You can write about how you can’t think of anything to write. That’s fine.
  • Repeat, but each morning begin before you’ve read anything from the previous days’ works.

Do this do every day for a week or several weeks or a month. You’ll have a collection of one-page ‘pieces’ though many of these could be less than coherent or they might just be scribblings about half-remembered dreams. I tried this myself and I recommend writing on paper in a book rather than on a computer screen. At least for me, the connection between the brain, the hand and the paper just works better for uncritical flow.

The point of this is to train the brain in first draft writing. You should avoid switching on your critical side if you can, and for now it doesn’t matter at all what sort of writing you are turning out each morning.

Did I find this exercise useful myself? I don’t know. Maybe. I did it a long time ago and I certainly found it engrossing at the time. I still have the book of daily writings somewhere and perhaps I should reflect back on it.

For now I’ll move on with the next step in the process, which is to gradually increase your output each day, by a few sentences, or paragraphs or even a whole page at a time if you wish. This will gradually train you to write for longer and longer periods without it feeling it a blood-draining effort.

The work itself will be used in a later chapter to reflect upon and try to get at the heart of what might be going on in your unconscious. For now, though, the next Chapter continues the theme of exercises intended to help free up a flow of writing: Chapter 6 – Writing on Schedule.

The very last thing I will note is that the exercise bears a strong resemblance to the ‘Daily Pages’ exercise in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.  It’s impossible to know if the exercise was modified from Becoming a Writer but it does illustrate how a lot of books on creative and writing advice written after Becoming a Writer feel like rehashes of this work. I’m not the only one to notice this, and I suspect it is the reason why a lot of serious writers recommend reading Becoming a Writer over a lot of more recent work.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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  1. Pingback: Morning Pages: Don’t Speak. Don’t Judge. Don’t Fall Asleep. | Austin Mystery Writers

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