"Becoming A Writer"
by Dorothea Brande
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Even in 1934, Dorothea Brande knew that most writers didn't need another book on "technique" -- and this, before so many more would be published. No, she realized, as John Gardner notes in his foreword, "the root problems of the writer are personality problems," and thus her wise book is designed to simply help you get over yourself and start writing, with techniques ranging from a simple declaration to write every day at a fixed time -- no matter what -- to exercises that come close to inventing the TM and self-actualization movements that would follow a few decades later.
Becoming a Writer recaptures the excitement of Dorothea Brande's creative writing classroom of the 1920s. Decades before brain research "discovered" the role of the right and left brain in all human endeavor, Dorothea Brande was teaching students how to see again, how to hold their minds still, how to call forth the inner writer.
She had her novice writers note the effects of everything in their environment on their writing. She showed them how to harness the unconscious, how to fall into the "artistic coma," then how to re-emerge and be their own critics.
Becoming a Writer is Dorothea Brande's legacy to all those who have ever wanted to express their ideas in written form. A sound, practical, inspirational, and charming approach to writing, it fulfills on the expectation in her introduction: "This book, I believe, will be unique.... I think there is such a magic and that it is teachable. This book is all about the writer's magic."
Dorothea Brande was also the author of Wake Up and Live!, with over one million copies sold.
1. THE FOUR DIFFICULTIES
The Difficulty of Writing at All; The "One-Book Author"; The Occasional Writer; The Uneven Writer, The Difficulties Not in Technical Equipment.
2. WHAT WRITERS ARE LIKE
Cultivating a Writer's Temperament; False and Real Artists; The Two Sides of a Writer; "Dissociation" Not Always Psychopathic; Everyday Examples of Dual Personality; The Slough of Despond.
3. THE ADVANTAGES OF DUPLICITY
The Process of Story Formation; The "Born Writer"; Unconscious and Conscious; The Two Persons of the Writer; The Transparent Barrier; Keep Your Own Counsel; Your "Best Friend and Severest Critic"; The Right Recreation; Friends and Books; The Arrogant Intellect; The Two Selves Not at War; The First Exercise.
4. INTERLUDE: ON TAKING ADVICE
Save Your Energy; Imagination Versus Will in Changing Habits; Displacing Old Habits; A Demonstration; The Right Frame of Mind.
5. HARNESSING THE UNCONSCIOUS
Wordless Daydreams; Toward Effortless Writing; Double Your "Output."
6. WRITING ON SCHEDULE
Engaging to Write; A Debt of Honor; Extending the Exercise; Succeed, or Stop Writing.
7. THE FIRST SURVEY
Reading Your Work Critically; The Pitfalls of Imitation; Discovering Your Strength; A Footnote for Teachers.
8. THE CRITIC AT WORK ON HIMSELF
A Critical Dialogue; Be Specific in Suggestions; Correction After Criticism; The Conditions of Excellence; Dictating a Daily Regime.
9. READINGS AS A WRITER
Read Twice; Summary Judgment and Detailed Analysis; The Second Reading; Points of Importance.
10. ON IMITATION (page 40)
Imitating Technical Excellences; How to Spend Words; Counteracting Monotony; Pick Up Fresh Words.
11. LEARNING TO SEE AGAIN
The Blinders of Habit; Causes of Repetitiousness; Recapturing Innocence of Eye; A Stranger in the Streets; The Rewards of Virtue.
12. THE SOURCE OF ORIGINALITY
The Elusive Quality; Originality Not Imitation; The "Surprise Ending"; Honesty, the Source of Originality; Trust Yourself; "Your Anger and My Anger"; One Story, Many Versions; Your Inalienable Uniqueness; A Questionnaire.
13. THE WRITER'S RECREATION
Busmen's Holidays; Wordless Recreation; Find Your Own Stimulus; A Variety of Time-Fillers.
14. THE PRACTICE STORY
A Recapitulation; The Contagiousness of Style; Find Your Own Style; The Story in Embryo; The Preparatory Period; Writing Confidently; A Finished Experiment; Time for Detachment; The Critical Reading.
15. THE GREAT DISCOVERY
The Five-Finger Exercises of Writing; The Root of Genius; Unconscious, Not Subconscious; The Higher Imagination; Come to Terms with the Unconscious; The Artistic Coma and the Writer's Magic.
16. THE THIRD PERSON, GENIUS
The Writer Not Dual But Triple; The Mysterious Faculty; Releasing Genius; Rhythm, Monotony, Silence; A Floor lo Scrub.
17. THE WRITER'S MAGIC (page
X Is to Mind as Mind to Body; Hold Your Mind Still; Practice in Control; The Story Idea as the Object; The Magic in Operation; Inducing the "Artistic Coma"; Valedictory.
IN CONCLUSION: SOME PROSAIC POINTERS
Typewriting; Have Two Typewriters; Stationery; At the Typewriter: WRITE!; For Coffee Addicts; Coffee Versus Mate; Reading; Book and Magazine Buying.
For most of my adult life I have been engaged in the writing, the editing, or the criticizing of fiction. I took, and I still take, the writing of fiction seriously. 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 minds to a wider world. The influence of any widely read book can hardly be overestimated. If it is sensational, shoddy, or vulgar our lives are the poorer for the cheap ideals which it sets in circulation; if, as so rarely happens, it is a thoroughly good book, honestly conceived and honestly executed, we are all indebted to it. The movies have not undermined the influence of fiction. On the contrary, they have extended its field, carrying the ideas which are already current among readers to those too young, too impatient, or too uneducated to read.
So I make no apology for writing seriously about the problems of fiction writers; but until two years ago I should have felt apologetic about adding another volume to the writer's working library. During the period of my own apprenticeship—and, I confess, long after that apprenticeship should have been over—I read every book on the technique of fiction, the constructing of plots, the handling of characters, that I could lay my hands on. I sat at the feet of teachers of various schools: I have heard the writing of fiction analyzed by a neo-Freudian; I submitted myself to an enthusiast who saw in the glandular theory of personality determination an inexhaustible mine for writers in search of characters; I underwent instruction from one who drew diagrams and from another who started with a synopsis and slowly inflated it into a completed story. I Have lived in a literary "colony" and talked to practicing writers who regarded their calling variously as a trade, a profession, and (rather sheepishly) as an art. In short, I have had firsthand experience with almost every current "approach" to the problems of writing, and my bookshelves overflow with the works of other instructors whom I have not seen in the flesh.
But two years ago—after still more years spent in reading for publishers, choosing the fiction for a magazine of national circulation, writing articles, stories, reviews and more extended criticism, conferring informally with editors and with authors of all ages about their work—I began, myself, to teach a class in fiction writing. Nothing was further from my mind, on the evening of my first lecture, than adding to the top-heavy literature on the subject. Although I had been considerably disappointed in most of the books I had read and all the classes I had attended, it was not until I joined the ranks of instructors that I realized the true basis of my discontent.
That basis of discontent was that the difficulties of the average student or amateur writer begin long before he has come to the place where he can benefit by technical instruction in story writing. He himself is in no position to suspect that truth. If he were able to discover for himself the reasons for his aridity the chances are that he would never be found enrolled in any class at all. But he only vaguely knows that successful writers have overcome the difficulties which seem almost insuperable to him; he believes that accepted authors have some magic, or at the very lowest, some trade secret, which, if he is alert and attentive, he may surprise. He suspects, further, that the teacher who offers his services knows that magic, and may drop a word about it which will prove an Open Sesame to him. In the hope of hearing it, or surprising it, he will sit doggedly through a series of instructions in story types and plot forming and technical problems which have no relation to his own dilemma. He will buy or borrow every book with "fiction" in the title; he will read any symposium by authors in which they tell their methods of work.
In almost every case he will be disappointed. In the opening lecture, within the first few pages of his book, within a sentence or two of his authors' symposium, he will be told rather shortly that "genius cannot be taught"; and there goes his hope glimmering. For whether he knows it or not, he is in search of the very thing that is denied him in that dismissive sentence. He may never presume to call the obscure impulse to set down his picture of the world in words by the name of "genius," he may never dare to bracket himself for a moment with the immortals of writing, but the disclaimer that genius cannot be taught, which most teachers and authors seem to feel must be stated as early and as abruptly as possible, is the death knell of his real hope. He had longed to hear that there was some magic about writing, and to be initiated into the brotherhood of authors.
This book, I believe, will be unique; for I think he is right. I think there is such a magic, and that it is teachable. This book is all about the writer's magic.
The Four Difficulties
So, having made my apologies, and stated my belief, I am going, from now on, to address myself solely to those who hope to write.
There is a sort of writer's magic. There is a procedure which many an author has come upon by happy accident or has worked out for himself which can, in part, be taught. To be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way, first considering the main difficulties which you will meet, then embarking on simple, but stringently self-enforced, exercises to overcome those difficulties. Last of all you must have the faith, or the curiosity, to take one odd piece of advice which will be unlike any of the exhortations that have come your way in classrooms or in textbooks.
In one other way, beside the admission that there is an initiate's knowledge in writing, I am going to depart from the usual procedure of those who offer handbooks for young authors. Open book after book devoted to the writer's problems: in nine cases out of ten you will find, well toward the front of the volume, some very gloomy paragraphs warning you that you may be no writer at all, that you probably lack taste, judgment, imagination, and every trace of the special abilities necessary to turn yourself from an aspirant into an artist, or even into a passable craftsman. You are likely to hear that your desire to write is perhaps only an infantile exhibitionism, or to be warned that because your friends think you a great writer (as if they ever did!) the world cannot be expected to share that fond opinion. And so on, most tiresomely. The reasons for this pessimism about young writers are dark to me. Books written for painters do not imply that the chances are that the reader can never be anything but a conceited dauber, nor do textbooks on engineering start out by warning the student that because he has been able to make a grasshopper out of two rubber bands and a matchstick he is not to think that he is likely ever to be an honor to his chosen profession.
Perhaps it is true that self-delusion most often takes the form of a belief that one can write; as to that I cannot say. My own experience has been that there is no field where one who is in earnest about learning to do good work can make such enormous strides in so short a time. So I am going to write this book for those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well as they are able, that they will have taken (and are still taking) every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing, and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.
It may be that it is only my extraordinary good fortune that I have met more writers of whom these things are true than deluded imbecile scribblers. But tragically enough I have met a number of sensitive young men and women who have very nearly been persuaded, because they had come up against one of the obstacles to writing which we are shortly going to consider, that they were unfit to write at all. Sometimes the desire to write overcame the humiliation they had had to undergo; but others dropped back into a life with no creative outlet, unhappy, thwarted, and restless. I hope this book persuades some who are hesitating on the verge of abandoning writing to make a different decision.
In my experience four difficulties have turned up again and again. I am consulted about them far oftener than I am asked for help in story structure or character delineation. I suspect that every teacher hears the same complaints, but that, being seldom a practicing author, he tends to dismiss them as out of his field, or to see in them evidence that the troubled student has not the true vocation. Yet it is the very pupils who are most obviously gifted who suffer from these disabilities, and the more sensitively organized they are the higher the hazard seems to them. Your embryo journalist or hack writer seldom asks for help of any sort; he is off after agents and editors while his more serious brother-in-arms is suffering the torments of the damned because of his insufficiencies. Yet instruction in writing is oftenest aimed at the oblivious tradesman of fiction, and the troubles of the artist are dismissed or overlooked.
The Difficulty of Writing at All
First there is the difficulty of writing at all. The full, abundant flow that must be established if the writer is to be heard from simply will not begin. The stupid conclusion that if he cannot write easily he has mistaken his career is sheer nonsense. There are a dozen reasons for the difficulty which should be canvassed before the teacher is entitled to say that he can see no signs of hope for this pupil.
It may be that the root of the trouble is youth and humility. Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples: the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire of which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building, and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all.
The "One-Book Author"
Second, and far more often than the layman would believe, there is the writer who has had an early success but is unable to repeat it. Here again there is a cant explanation which is offered whenever this difficulty is met: this type of writer, we are assured, is a "one-book author"; he has written a fragment of autobiography, has unburdened himself of his animus against his parents and his background, and, being relieved, cannot repeat his tour de force. But obviously he does not consider himself a one-book author, or we should hear nothing more from him. Moreover, all fiction is, in the sense used here, autobiographical, and yet there are fortunate authors who go on shaping, recombining, and objectifying the items of their experience into a long series of satisfactory books or stories. No; he is right in considering the sudden stoppage of his gift a morbid symptom, and right, usually, in thinking it can be relieved.
It is evident, if this writer had a deserved success, that he already knows something, presumably a great deal, of the technical end of his art. His trouble is not there, and, except by happy accident, no amount of counsel and advice about technique will break the deadlock. He is, in some ways, more fortunate than the beginner who cannot learn to write fluently, for at least he has given evidence of his ability to set down words in impressive order. But his first impatience at being unable to repeat his success can pass into discouragement and go on to actual despair; and an excellent author may be lost in consequence.
The Occasional Writer
The third difficulty is a sort of combination of the first two: there are writers who can, at wearisomely long intervals, write with great effectiveness. I have had a pupil whose output was one excellent short story each year —hardly enough to satisfy either body or spirit. The sterile periods were torture to her; the world, till she could write again, a desert waste. Each time she found herself unable to work she was certain she could never repeat her success, and, on first acquaintance, she very nearly persuaded me of it. But when the cycle was lived through from start to finish she always wrote again, and wrote well.
Here again no technical instruction can touch the difficulty. Those who suffer from these silences in which not one idea seems to arise, not one sentence to come irresistibly to the mind's surface, may write like artists and craftsmen when they have once broken the spell. The teacher-consultant must form a definite idea of the root of the trouble and give counsel accordingly. It may be, again, that some notion of waiting for the lightning of inspiration to strike is behind the matter. Often it is the result of such ideals of perfection as can hardly bear the light of day. Sometimes, but rarely, a kind of touchy vanity is at work, which will not risk any rebuff and so will not allow anything to be undertaken which is not assured in advance of acceptance.
The Uneven Writer
The fourth difficulty actually has a technical aspect: it is the inability to carry a story, vividly but imperfectly apprehended, to a successful conclusion. Writers who complain of this are often able to start a story well, but find it out of control after a few pages. Or they will write a good story so drily and sparely that all its virtues are lost. Occasionally they cannot motivate their central action adequately, and the story carries no conviction.
It is quite true that those who find themselves in this pass can be greatly helped by learning about structure, about the various forms which the story may take, of the innocuous "tricks of the trade" which will help a story over the stile. But even here the real difficulty has set in long before the story form is in question. The author has not the self-confidence necessary to present his idea well, or he is too inexperienced to know how his characters would act in real life, or he is too shy to write as fully and emotionally as he needs to write if his story is to come to life. The writer who turns out one weak, embarrassed, or abruptly told story after another obviously needs something more than to have his individual manuscripts criticized for him. As soon as possible he must learn to trust his own feeling for the story, and to relax in the telling, until he has learned to use the sure, deft stroke of the man who is master of his medium. So even this dilemma comes down, after all, to being a trouble in the writer's personality rather than a defect in his technical equipment.
The Difficulties Not in Technical Equipment
Those are the four difficulties oftenest met at the outset of an author's writing life. Almost everyone who buys books on fiction writing, or takes classes in the art of the short story, suffers from one or another of these troubles, and until they have been overcome he is able to get very little benefit from the technical training which will be so valuable to him later. Occasionally writers are stimulated enough by the classroom atmosphere to turn out stories during the course; but they stop writing the moment that stimulus is withdrawn. An astonishing number who really want ardently to write are unable even to do assigned themes, yet they turn up hopefully—sometimes year after year. Obviously they are looking for help that is not being given them; and obviously they are in earnest—ready to spend what time, effort, and money they can to emerge from the class of novices and "yearners" and take their place among productive artists.
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