We eat your words

Why ‘Becoming a Writer’ is One of the Best Books for Writers

“I took, and I still take, the writing of fiction seriously.”

– Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer, Harcourt, Brace & Company: New York 1934.

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In 18 years Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande will be 100 years old. It’s been almost continuously in print since 1934 and I think will remain so for its centennial, thanks to a wonderful foreword (written in 1980) by the great American novelist John Gardner, and people (like me) who recommend it to anyone who wants to become a writer and, just as important, remain a writer.

John Gardner says this book is about “the writer’s magic,” something many people will tell you cannot be taught. Both Gardner and Ms. Brande firmly disagree, and her book sets out to prove that it’s not only teachable but accessible to everyone. In this book she offers excellent advice and how-to exercises, all designed to “call forth the inner writer.”

Ms. Brande says you must think of yourself as “two-persons-in-one.” There is the everyday, practical-self, which she describes as intelligent, critical and detached, that “bears the brunt of the day’s encounters,” and there is the artist-self.

Within this duality—the practical-self and the artist-self—“you will have erected a transparent barrier between you and the world, behind which you can grow into your artistic maturity at your own pace.” The artist-self, which she characterizes as sensitive and enthusiastic, can only flourish when it is protected by the practical-self, sheltered from these other day-to-day concerns. In fact the “first function” of the practical-self is to “provide suitable conditions for the artist-self.”

The practical-self will figure out just what those suitable conditions are and how to maintain them. Ms. Brande knows, too, when to shield the artist-self: “Send your practical self out into the world to receive suggestions, criticisms, or rejections… Criticism and rejection are not personal insults, but your artistic component will not know that. It will quiver and wince and run to cover, and you will have trouble in luring it out again to observe and weave tales and find words for all the thousand shades of feeling that go to make up a story.”

Ms. Brande also talks about another duality, the one between the conscious and the unconscious mind: “The unconscious must flow freely and richly, bringing at demand all the treasures of memory, all the emotions, incidents, scenes, intimations of character and relationship which it has stored away in its depths; the conscious mind must control, combine and discriminate between these materials without hampering the unconscious flow.” She says the unconscious is “shy, elusive and unwieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it. The conscious mind is meddlesome, opinionated, and arrogant, but it can be made subservient to the inborn talent through training.”

Because stories come from the shy, elusive and unwieldy unconscious, Ms. Brande says you must never talk about your stories before they are written. It’s natural to get excited by a new idea and want to share it, especially if people ask what you’re working on. But it’s far better to keep quiet. This isn’t about being coy or secretive. If you “talk the story out,” the unconscious will actively rebel: “your unconscious self… will not care whether the words you use are written down or talked to the world at large. If you are for the moment fortunate enough to have a responsive audience you often suffer for it later… You will have created your story and reaped your reward in approval or shocked disapproval; in either case you will have hit your mark. Afterward you will find yourself disinclined to go on with the laborious process of writing that story at full length; unconsciously you will consider it as already done, a twice-told tale.” If you go ahead and write the story anyway, it may come out flat, uninspired. Once a project is underway, she says, then you may show it to people and ask for advice, but “to talk too early is a grave mistake.”

And that’s only part of what’s in this book. Becoming a Writer gets into so much more, such as harnessing the unconscious through “wordless daydreams,” and “how to spend words,” and the source of originality, and inducing the “artistic coma.” This piece is just a glimpse into Dorothea Brande, who only has the best interests of both your selves at heart.

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