Kathy’s Choice: Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande.
Oh, the dollars I have spent trying to find the one piece of advice that would turn me into a genius writer. I must have two dozen books on the craft of writing.
Annie Lamott’s book Bird by Bird reviewed by Sister Sharon below was my first, and it has some great technical and motivational advice; when I finished, I thought, “I can do this!”
Wish I had found this book along with it. Brande talks not so much about how to write, but how to be a writer.
Dorothea Brande presents us.
Us in that she focuses on what she calls writing magic, which comes from the marriage of our technical skills and our inner genius. This will not be accomplished in creative writing classes, she says, but by focusing on ourselves, our subconscious, and letting our genius out when we are stuck.
For someone who was a Psych major and later became a therapist, this one caught my attention. I swear if I had read this first, I would have gotten into good habits earlier, gotten the story out, and fussed with it later.
This is about us.
Dorothea Brande wrote her book Becoming a Writer in 1934 and it was reprinted in 1980.
“The book is for 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 a they are able, that they will have taken (and are still taking) 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.”
So she assumes you know what you are doing.
According to her, there are four types of issues with writers:
- Those who can’t write at all: “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.”
- The one-book writer, “The writer who has had an early success but is unable to repeat it.”
- The occasional writer, “a combination of the two: there are some writers who can, at wearisomely long intervals, write with great effectiveness.”
- And the uneven writer “is the inability to carry a story, vividly but imperfectly apprehended, to a successful conclusion.” She admits this may be a technical issue, but she convincingly tells us there is a real possibility that this may not be so much a technical issue but one of a personality trait.
We have dual personalities, we artists. There is the emotional, childlike side we harness to create our craft, and the adult— the workman and the critic. Brande says they must exist beside and through each other in balance in order to create meaningful art. She advocates morning exercises, similar to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, taking advantage of the not-quite-awake, childlike consciousness that allows the inner genius to come out.
She has exercises for you to perform to corral your inner genius. She says the creative writing classes are for the weak, that true originality and creativity comes from within, that we have roadblocks set up by our own subconscious that get in the way of true artistry. She says we can all write, and write well, the words flowing, our genius coming forth, but not without putting in the work.
She can be heavy-handed, which I actually liked. “Do this…you must…follow this rule…form this habit…” or go bag groceries for a living, because without this discipline you will not succeed. (Paraphrased.)
Such a refreshing read. She offers so much more in this small, wise book that I cannot begin to present here. Go get it. You won’t be disappointed.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was one of the first, it may even have been the first book I read about writing craft! What a way to start!
Her authenticity, honesty, and practicality led me to think all writing craft books were like this. Not!
And perhaps her book stands out because she wrote as much about life as about the writing life. They seem inextricable in her work. She writes both non-fiction and novels and each book I’ve read is honed to near perfection. She simply has an amazing way with words. Okay, you’re right. I’m a groupie!
The title of Bird by Bird comes from a family story. Her brother, having procrastinated on a school project about birds, sat surrounded by books and overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. He didn’t even know how to begin. The wise father sat by his son and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
And that is a writing lesson as well as a life lesson. How do you accomplish what might seem impossible to do? Bit by bit, step by step, bird by bird.
Here are ten tips and my take on them, picked from Bird by Bird that should resonate with other writers as they did with me:
1. Write regularly. Everyone says it and so does Anne Lamott. You simply must practice your craft whether you feel like it or not, whether it’s good or not. Writing is your job. With the job that pays you money, you can’t just not show up because you don’t feel like it. You go to work. So, go to writing-work at the same time every day.
2. Pay attention. Writers notice and note everything. A good bit of writing is collecting life around you. The aromas on the air. The conversation snippets. The tension in a room. Notice then note what you noticed in the notebook you always have at hand.
3. Decide you are a writer. Not a wanna-be writer. Not a person who used to write. Not someone who used to yearn for writing time. You are a writer because you decide to be one and then you actualize that. It’s amazing how many people say they want to write but …. (fill in the blank). Just do it. Don’t talk about doing it. As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
4. Make time to write. This is, of course, related to tip three. We all have the same twenty-four hours to spend. How we choose to spend discretionary hours (or what we prioritize to create more discretionary hours) is up to us. Yes, life happens. Yes, others will suck you dry if you don’t establish limits. But if you DECIDE to be a writer then you must jealously protect your writing time. I have author friends with kids, happy marriages, and volunteer efforts who crank out good books regularly. So can you, IF you choose to do so. You might be your own worst writing-time enemy.
5. Write down scenes and snippets of dialogue. No doubt you have already imagined part of your story even though you may not yet be aware of the story arc. Capture these inspirations. Write them down to store for later access. These insights and flashes are the fuel to power you through the project. It doesn’t matter when they will occur. You’ll find the place. For now, preserve them as you get them.
6. Break the task down to manageable bites. Examine the project. Is it your historical fiction novel with an astonishing revelation about the lost years in Lincoln’s life? What will it take to get that done? List components you need to work on (research, plotting, character sketches, story treatment, and so on) so you can see the scope of the project and cross them off as you do them.
7. Get over yourself. NO ONE writes a perfect first draft. What makes you think you’ll be the first to do so? If you go into this knowing that the first draft is going to need serious work later, you’ll be much happier. It is, in fact, a basic premise in the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month. Just write. Take time later to put the lipstick on your pig. (Well, hopefully it’s not a pig.)
8. Draw on your past. While not everyone has a dramatic or traumatic childhood, we all experienced failures and successes and frustrations and joys. Use the emotion from your experiences to write more authentically. Sister Kathy wrote about delving deeper than she ever had into her father’s death as a way to tap into that energy.
9. Deepen your soul through reading and writing. We need not just physical nourishment, but our spirit thirsts and hungers, too. Regular reading and writing fills up your soul. Replenish yourself or you shrivel and die. Replenishment through reading is obvious. But writing also feeds the soul if you are thoughtful, reflective, and probing as you write.
10. Care about your characters and get to know them. The best plots come from character development and change. You must show your vulnerabilities to make your characters vulnerable. Live in their skin and the dialogue reveals itself to you.
Oh, it was hard choosing only ten things I learned! Read Bird by Bird. I promise it will resonate with you, too. Then make your own top ten list.