Review Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Review by Lynne Mahan

Becoming a Writer
by Dorothea Brande
First printing: Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1934
J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1981
175 pages

Some of the amazing things about Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, a writing how-to book (in addition to the fact that it was written in 1934), are the techniques used by  Brande to loosen up a writer’s creativity. The fact is that, without creativity, a writer cannot write, so all the technical information in the world cannot unlock the muse, thus causing the writer discontent. Brande believes “that basis of [this] 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.” She goes on to say that the frustrated writer seems to think there is a magic or trade secret that successful writers have, and she says in a way he is right.

Her target audience includes “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 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.”

Motivated to write the book by attending one too many technical classes where the instructors never addressed the magic, Brande breaks the problems down into four categories; the difficulty of writing at all, the one book author, the occasional writer, and the uneven writer.  She suggests that “we must try to cure them where they arise—in the life and attitudes and habits, in the very character itself.” Addressing them one at a time through the lens of character, Brande zeros in on the issues and creates exercises to practice.

First, the two sides of the writer, the child and the adult must be discerned in daily activities. Creativity is the child’s world, spontaneous and imaginative, and the adult is the business manager; first work, then play. Call it left brain and right brain, or child and adult—some part of the writer has to dream up the plan and some part has to execute the plan. Brande gives us hope that they are both embodied in us and can be recognized and utilized at the right time and place to reach our writing goals.

As we learn to know ourselves through Brande’s exercises, we progress to levels of writing discipline very similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages and writer’s date. Natalie Goldberg’s techniques are similar, as they involve freeing yourself to write anything without the internal editor, stopping us at every word to check for accuracy.

Following the exercises religiously frees our creative side (the child) and honors the adult to provide for the real passion (the writing). Set up a time for writing. Under no circumstances stand yourself up. If you do, she warns, “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 early as late.”

Her intention here is not to discourage, but to encourage the writer to set up a time daily to invite the unconscious to come and play. If the child (the unconscious creative mind) knows it is acceptable to come out every day at eight in the morning, come it will, and serve until it is put away when the adult must provide structure so that the child can come another day.

She says simply, “for the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind. It is not by weighing, balancing, trimming, expanding with conscious intention, that an excellent piece of art is born. It takes its shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect. There is much that the conscious can do, but it cannot provide you with genius, or with the talent that is genius’ second cousin.”

In a way, this simplifies the writing process. Turn it on and turn it off. Although, when you are a writer, you are writing all the time. But there is a time to turn the faucet onto the paper, and that is the delicious part of writing. To see the words you have been nurturing in your unconscious take form before your eyes.

Brande has several other very practical suggestions. She advises exchanging coffee for Maté and enjoying a meditation session before your writing appointment. She also advises to pay attention to the people who encourage your flow of consciousness and those who do not. If watching television stifles your creativity, do less of it (she would advise!). Be aware of what puts you in a creative mindset and what does not. Be disciplined! “If you are unable to finish a piece of work at one sitting, make an engagement with yourself to resume work before you  rise from the table. You will find that this acts like a posthypnotic suggestion in more ways than one. You will get back to the work without delay, and you will pick up the same note with little difficulty, so that your story will not show as many different styles as a patchwork quilt when it is done.”

I liked this book. I loved this book. The fact that it sat on my bookshelf for nine years has nothing to do with the book. Had I picked it up sooner, I would have avoided many pitfalls.  Brande’s 1934-style prose was a little difficult to wade through at times, but soon I found myself sitting down with her for a cup of Mate and discussing my latest writing block . . . this review!

Dorothea Brande was born in Chicago and later attended Mrs. Starretts’ School for Girls and the University of Chicago, Lewis Institute of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. She held editorial positions at Chicago Tribune, and the Board of the Journal of American Medical Association. She taught private writing classes and lectured throughout the country. Among her other books are Most Beautiful Lady, a novel, and Wake Up and Live, which sold over 2,000,000 and was published in eleven languages. (I remember it on my mother’s bookshelf.)

According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, volume 39, she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an Episcopalian, a Republican, and enjoyed reading, knitting and embroidery!

I leave you with her words. “All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. This is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.”

I footnotes