Friday, January 6

Friday Review: Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande

This book is dope.

A short but content-rich read, Becoming A Writer is a fluff-free gem of sensible advice about how to stop being a tortured artist and start being a happy and productive writer.

Written in 1934, it's a classic of the writing-on-writing genre. It's easy to see why. Even though it's been around for over 70 years, the message was fresh and relevant to me.

I repeat: dope.

There are some cool exercises, all practical things that should turn into habits rather than fill-in-the-blank homework. Some I haven't tried yet, as they tend to build on each other, but the one I love so far is getting up a little earlier than usual each day, and writing FIRST THING.

You shouldn't read (or preferably even speak) a word until your allotted writing time is up. I've done this for a few days and let me tell you: it's a pain in the ass, and it's totally worth it. Writing before consuming any information (and therefore influence) really lets you find your own rhythm and voice. Highly recommended.

Though the tone is generally kind, one moment Brande actually says that if you consistently fail at one of her exercises, you're probably not cut out to be a writer. (To be fair, the exercise was focused on discipline rather than skill.) I really respected her for saying that. Though she condemns instructors who aim to discourage writers, she doesn't offer blind encouragement either.

Did I mention this was written seventy years ago? That tripped me up a bit. Here are some fun archaic moments:

  • The word 'behooves' always makes me chortle. Behooooooves.
  • "The typewriter has made the writer's way more rocky than it was in the old days of quill and pen." Ah, the old days! When you had to climb into the eagle's nest to get a fresh quill. Good times.
  • Brande suggests that you not allow your fancy white friends judge to you for listening to "Negro spirituals" while you write.
  • NEGRO SPIRITUALS. At no point between 1934-2011 did anyone think to backspace that and replace it with something not so ridiculously offensive? 'Gospel' would've worked.
  • "Talking pictures should be very rarely indulged in." Oh, them talkies are the devil's work!
  • She uses the idea of 'duplicity' (every writer has two sides, the one that makes shopping lists and the one that writes poems about the moonlight) and spends at least five pages convincing the reader this duplicity is "not psychopathic". I guess back in the olden days of quill and pen, people spontaneously went on killing sprees after doing a particularly creative scrapbooking project.

Despite these jarringly oldschool moments, some of the advice is nothing less than New Age by today's standards. Brande encourages clear-eyed awareness exercises that would make Eckhart Tolle proud*, and the main technique she prescribes for unleashing your 'genius' is simply a focused meditation.

But you know what's really great about this book? It gets to the root of why most writing advice misses the point completely. Anyone who's suffered from writer's block, stared at a blank screen (or blank vellum sheet, their quill unyielding) or wondered why inspiration hit only once in a blue moon has usually sought advice. But studying plot structure and approaches to dialogue aren't the solution, because the problem isn't the writing, it's the writer themselves. Brande understands the personality pitfalls of being a writer and offers imminently practical solutions.

This is one of those rare books that makes you want to go write! I'd give it a 4.7/5 or 9.4/10 - if you're a writer, this belongs on your bookshelf right next to Stephen King's On Writing.

D. O. P. E.

*Does Eckhart Tolle feel proud about anything? I get the feeling he's perpetually just-okay with the universe, man.

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