It’s a mystery how come I haven’t chanced upon this book before, but maybe some things are meant to be. Had I read it earlier, I might have dismissed it as spiritual mumbo jumbo. Today it speaks to me. It gives me hope.
I’ve been having serious trouble with writing for the last, oh, too many months. A time that could break a much sturdier spirit, let alone a person of as little faith as me. So I am quite ready to take any help I can get.
In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande claims that there is such a thing as ‘writer’s magic’, a secret that ‘born writers’ stumble upon by chance or intuition. The important thing is that those of us who are not ‘born writers’ but want to be writers nonetheless can learn the trick.
Dorothea, I’m all ears.
So I read the book, and then I reread it, this time making notes. Becoming a Writer is a short piece, quite boiled down as it is, so if you’re interested in the topic, you should just read it. And don’t be discouraged by the outdated examples or some archaic phrasing (it was first published in 1934). The gist of the book is timeless.
Below is a condensed version of my notes, a synopsis of a synopsis if you will. It’s what a course outline would look like, if someone was to make Brande’s book into a course. I hope this digest does not ridicule her ideas.
Becoming a Writer:
Writer’s magic CAN be taught and this is what this course will attempt. It’s a preliminary course, to be taken before any technical ‘how to write’ courses.
If you cannot write easily, it does not mean you should choose a different career. You need to work on balancing your personality — most likely the craftsman in you is smothering the artist.
Phase 1 - Realising writer’s dual personality
You must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two. The Craftsman: adult, discriminating, critical, conscious. The Artist: spontaneous, sensitive, childlike, unconscious.
Writing is a function of the whole man, the conscious and unconscious in balance:
- The unconscious flows freely, 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;
- The unconscious will provide the writer with “types” of all kinds—typical characters, typical scenes, typical emotional responses;
- The conscious will have the task of deciding which of these are too personal, too purely idiosyncratic to be material for art, and which of them are universal enough to be useful.
The process of story formation:
- The story arises in the unconscious;
- The conscious scrutinises the story and alters it;
- Final synthesis of the elements in the unconscious;
- The writing — During the actual writing the adult must step aside, let the child do its work. The adult comes in again for the editing and rewriting.
The ‘born writer’ knows how to do this instinctively and spontaneously. Everyone else just has to learn it. For the period of education try to isolate the two aspects of your mind and think of yourself as two persons in one.
Exercise: Turn yourself into your own object of attention. For a couple of days follow yourself at different moments with the fiction maker’s eye. What do you look like? How do you walk? What could be gathered of you, your character, your background, your purpose just there at that minute? What’s your attitude towards different people? Another time, describe to yourself (using no gestures) some routine activity, e.g. how you comb your hair, or how you dress.
Phase 2 — Channelling the unconscious into writing
Learning to write from the unconscious, without judgement, before the conscious mind sets it.
Exercise: Wake up half an hour or an hour earlier then usually. As soon as you can, without talking to anyone or reading anything, start writing — anything that comes to your mind. Keep it up every day but do not read what you’ve written — you don’t want to influence yourself or to inhibit your unconscious with conscious judgement.
Learning to write at a given moment.
Exercise: Make an engagement with yourself to write. Every day decide exactly when and for how long you’re going to write (doesn’t have to be long, even fifteen minutes will do). Pick a different time every day. Once you made the engagement with yourself, stick to it. No excuses are allowed (headache, phone call, deadline). When the appointed time comes, you drop everything and sit to write. Write like you do in the morning — anything that comes to your mind, from the unconscious. If nothing else comes, write about how you hate this exercise and why. Keep it up every day but don’t read.
Cut off point: “If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy.”
Phase 3 — Survey and further writer’s training
If you decide you’ve worked past the cut off point, if you’re writing with the same ease in the morning and at your appointed hours, sticking to your engagements — it’s time for the first survey. Read the material you’ve produced so far. Discover your strengths, your natural style, the themes that come to you. Have an honest conversation between your two selves to decide on your direction and development.
Read as a writer — read twice: first for enjoyment, second time with critical deliberation, paying special attention to things that you struggle with in your writing.
Exercise your child’s eye — every day for a half hour or so make a conscious effort to see things without taking them for granted. Be a stranger in your own streets. Speculate on people you encounter. Important: put what you notice into definite words.
Observe yourself — notice what activities result in good writing and arrange for them.
Phase 4 — Originality
Originality comes from honesty. Discover what you’re like, what you believe. Learn to trust yourself to say precisely what you think of any given situation or character and your work will be original.
If you don’t have answers to the big questions, don’t address the major issues, but write about subjects on which you have strong convictions. However, don’t wait for the arrival of final wisdom, write on the basis of your present beliefs with commitment.
There is a limited number of dramatic situations, don’t try to come up with new ones. Originality is in how you present the dilemmas and how your protagonist will deal with them. There are no trite situations, only dull writers.
Phase 5 — Your genius at work
Exercise: Read through your morning writing and find an idea, a nucleus of a story. Think about what does the idea need in order to be developed into a short story or an essay. For a day or two immerse yourself in the details, think about the characters, research if needed. Then dream about it. Let your conscious and unconscious mind work on it. Once you’ve done all you can for the story, dismiss it from your mind for a couple of days, but set a precise date and time when you’re going to write it. When the appointed time comes, sit down and write it all in one go. Write quickly, paying no attention to the process. When you finish, again leave the story alone for a couple of days - only then read it.
Genius is a faculty of the unconscious mind and it can be trained. The unconscious has access to all your memories, it can see types, patterns, and purposes quicker than your intellect (think: intuition as evolutionary survival mechanism).
Genius works best when the mind is still. Practice techniques to quiet your mind. Once you get used to it, try “holding a story idea, or a character, in your mind, and letting your stillness centre around that”.
Other advice for writers:
- Keep your writing to yourself. It’s easier to observe people if they don’t know they’re being studied. Also, if you talk about what you’re writing, you might loose the urge to write — the story will have been told.
- Find wordless entertainment to stimulate your writing. Music, knitting, staring at pigeons in the park. Practice meditation to still your mind.
- Before you start writing decide on the first and last sentence of your story (they can be changed later on). Think of them as a “springboard from which to dive into your work” and as “a raft to swim toward”.
- Take an honest inventory every three to six months but in between those sessions live and work without introspection.