Thursday, 23 May 2013

Becoming a writer by Dorothea Brande

Can you teach creative writing? In the words of Dorothea Brande: "There is a sort of writer's magic... which can, in part, be taught."

Is that true?

I've heard of this book before (published in 1934) but didn't realise until recently that you can now read it online here.

What I really liked about Becoming a writer is that it isn't full of writing exercises (there are a few), but instead it talks about the writing "temperament" - the difference between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and which does what in your writing life, and how you keep them in check or foster them or help them to work together. "Becoming a writer," she declares, "is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer's temperament."

Her solution is that "you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two" - in other words, the conscious and the unconscious mind. I love her reasons for why you should never talk about what you're writing. And here she describes the genesis of a story:

"...the story arises in the unconscious. It then appears, sometimes only vaguely prefigured, at other times astonishingly definite, in the consciousness. There it is scrutinized, pruned, altered, strengthened, made more spectacular or less melodramatic; and is returned into the unconscious for the final synthesis of its elements. After a period of intense activity—which, however, goes on at so deep a level that the author himself occasionally feels he has "forgotten" or "lost" his idea—it once again signals to the conscious that the work of synthesis has been done; and the actual writing of the story begins."

So who was Dorothea Brande? According to Wikipedia, she was a well-respected writer and editor in New York (1893 – 1948.) She also wrote Wake up and live which was made into a musical. Some parts of Becoming a writer, and the overall tone, come across as surprisingly modern. Other parts betray its age ("Now that everyone has his portable typewriter...") But overall it is so readable and full of elegant little gems like this: "the first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm."

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