Monday, March 22, 2010

Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer (writing about a book written about writing)


There have been hundreds (if not thousands) of manuals written on how to write fiction. Many of these works address craft in a formulaic, scientific manner and explain in academic language what a story should be and what it takes to develop a character. Others use a broad, philosophical technique, exploring writing as something which cannot be taught but must be known, leaving readers to wonder why the author bothered writing the guide in the first place. Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer takes an entirely different approach.

Brande’s handbook immediately reassures the aspiring writer. In her first chapter, she addresses what she considers to be the main difficulties in the process. These difficulties have nothing to do with development of plot or technical performance: Brande addresses universal issues an aspiring author must face after these discrepancies in technique have already been overcome. “First, there is the difficulty in writing at all,” she begins. “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.” Brande continues with her unapologetic tone, not only stating the common issues writers face but also addressing why they arise and the unfair conclusions drawn in consequence—conclusions which often lead novice writers to abandon the craft.

From here, the book explores the process as an art. While it does supply advice on craft, the angle here is more psychological than literary. Brande puts writing into terms that the reader can understand as an art and a consequence of their nature rather than an academic process. She also quells any notion that writing fiction is something unattainable; she reassures readers by suppressing any romantic notions that an author must be a born genius.

Once these general fears have been addressed, Becoming a Writer goes on to provide practical and (unlike many books of this sort) universal advice. The concentration here is on mentality more than technique. Brande offers advice on the temperaments the writer must establish to write well. At times, the focus is on self-perception. There is an entire chapter devoted to developing the ability to separate the artist from the rational, day-to-day self, explaining how these two sides of the personality can hinder one another and—more importantly—how each side is integral to the creative process. Other times, the book offers much more direct advice. Brande’s most important exercise is to actually write at designated times each day, no matter what it is that’s being written. In her mind, the inability to comply with this practice is the only sure sign that a writer has chosen the wrong profession.

Becoming a Writer offers aspiring fiction writers a well-balanced guide to their craft, and considering it was originally published in 1934, it’s a wonder that Brande’s theories on the human psyche remain relevant. Other than a few references to typewriters (a cumbersome technology which is becoming a staple in the writer’s room), the content of this book has stood up to the test of time quite well. While there are certainly a number of books in this genre (many of which have, no doubt, borrowed from this title), Becoming a Writer should not be overlooked. This classic guide is not for the novice, but for the writer who is already acquainted with voice and technique. This is a book for the writer who struggles with his or her commitment to the craft and the implications of that commitment. For those who have trouble establishing an identity as a writer, Becoming a Writer is a place to start.

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