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A blog for everything bookish

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

I came across this book in an article in which writers gave recommendations about how to develop writing skills. This particular book was recommended by Hillary Mantel, and her advice was: read the book and follow it to the letter. Quite an intriguing recommendation.

This book was published in 1934, and you’d think that after this length of time the advice might seem a little antiquated or stale in parts. Surprisingly, this is not the case though the references to typewriters might be replaced with laptops in the current age and of course there is nothing in there about avoiding the distractions of the internet. However, these are minor points and the advice given by Brande remains remarkably fresh.

If you’re looking for a book which gives advice about styles or writing exercises, then this book isn’t for you. However, what Brande focuses on is the psychology of being a writer and how to train your mind to adopt writerly instincts. In this respect, this book is quite different to all the others which I’ve read which focus on inspiration and beating writers block or various different writing techniques. Brande, however, posits the idea that you can write about pretty much anything but what you need to do is to grow a modicum of confidence in your unique vision of the world and train yourself to write regularly and to unleash that part of your brain in which your creative vision is seated. She poses the idea that we are all dual-minded, and that the key to writing successfully is to allow your unconscious mind to flow with its ideas and vision and then use your conscious mind to edit this into a cohesive piece.

Peppered along the way are lots of very practical pieces of advice. Write every day, train yourself to avoid procrastination and self-editing (until you’re in the editing stage), keep a journal, go for walks and undertake activities which occupy the body but allow your mind to wander, read wisely and attentively.

It’s an interesting approach to developing writing skills, which I found quite refreshing. Brande’s focus is on nurturing your innate abilities, which is not to say that everyone can be a writer and certainly not a genius writer, but as she points out at the beginning: 

Open book after book devoted to the writer’s problems: in nine out of ten cases you will find, well towards the front of the volume, some very gloomy paragraphs warning you that you may be no writer at all, that you probably lack taste, judgement, 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 concerned 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 your 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 the 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 honour to his chosen profession.”

I have encountered, regularly, this idea that becoming a writer is so difficult that most people will not master it, and perhaps that advice is true. But what Brande seeks to achieve is the making of that judgement after you have apprenticed yourself to the vocation of writing for a period of time, not before you’ve started on the journey. I found her advice very practical and helpful and I’m slowly putting it into practice. It is a book that would benefit from slow or multiple readings, something which might help to build confidence in the difficult periods or provide a guidebook to getting back on track.

As a book about how to be a writer, this is one of the best I’ve encountered. A worthy read for anyone about to embark on their writing journey.