Friday, January 16, 2009

Becoming a Writer

I'm not really a fan of books on writing. Most of them seem as dry as sawdust, if not drier. I've tried Writing with Power by Peter Elbow who is Julie's writing guru but not mine. I've tried Strunk and White's famous Elements of Style -- a no-go. I've checked out other books on writing, and I just haven't been enthused. Yes, they were somewhat helpful, but their main points just didn't seem to make a difference in how I saw myself as a fledgling writer: a wannabe.
Then my dear friend Kitty lent me a little pink book published waaaay back in 1934, far before the advent of the computer. Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer seemed to be written especially for me ... especially to me.

The foreward by John Gardner let me know immediately that this slim volume was a gem-in-the-making. He pointed out that she saw that "the root problems of the writer are personality problems." Aha! On the next page, Gardner explains more fully: "The root problems [of the writer] are problems of confidence, self-respect, freedom: The writer's demon is imprisoned by the various ghosts in the unconscious."

Now we're talking. My not seeing myself as a writer stemmed from a real lack of confidence and self-respect. And I have rarely allowed myself the freedom to really let go and just write, at least until NaNoWriMo.

Then as I read Brande's book itself, I really began to understand a great deal about writing that I had truly never considered. She discussed the four problems of writers: the difficulty of writing at all; the "one-book author," the occasional writer; and the uneven writer, before telling us about what writers are really like: their dual personalities or "two persons" of the writer.

What really helped me was her advice on "writing on schedule" each day. Not that I've been able to take her advice with my crazy-busy schedule since NaNoWriMo. But even more than that very practical advice was her chapter on "Learning to See Again." In her opinion, a "dullness of apprehension to which we all submit spinelessly is a real danger to a writer." We are to "recapture a childlike 'innocence of eye" that will enable us to see our world with "wide-eyed interest" that will enable us to "gather stores of new material in a short time." If we turn ourselves "into a stranger in our own streets," our writing will gain a freshness, a vividness, an "intense awareness" in our morning pages that will be "fuller and better" than ever before. She mentioned, "one reason for the inexhaustible resources of the true genius. Everything that ever happened to him is his to use." The chapter concludes, "By the simple means of refusing to let yourself fall into indifference and boredom, you can reach and revive for your writing every aspect of your life."

Brande's ideas on the source of both genius and originality are simple yet profound. I never would have thought that originality stems from honesty and the willingness to trust oneself as a writer. She writes, "... there is no situation which is trite in itself; there are only dull, unimaginative, or uncommunicative authors." Zing! Wow. She concludes this particular section with "... there is no triteness where there is a good, clear, honest mind at work." And her last thought in the chapter also is thought-provoking: "The best books emerge from the strongest convictions."

Her ideas on what writers do in their free time are also intriguing -- that we should have "wordless recreation." Kitty and I discussed this very idea recently: her hobby is singing which isn't exactly wordless but is quite different from writing as she sings in several choirs, including our church choir and the Point Loma Master Chorale, among others while mine is gardening. Digging my fingers into damp soil, planning and planting, weeding and trimming, makes me feel as though I am taking a little part in the amazing work of our Creator. I know of others who quilt and sew, or draw and paint, just to get away from writing. Brande claims that wordless recreation allows time for ideas to be bubbling on the back of the stove, so to say. And I can attest to its effectiveness.

If you would like to become a writer, or would like to learn more about how writers think, create, and write, then this little book is a real gem. And if you already consider yourself a writer: congratulations. And get this book ASAP. It's practically worth its weight in gold, if you will pardon a very bad cliche. The final chapter about composing straight into the typewriter can easily be translated into writing on a computer. So with the exception of one or two names of writers current in the 1930's, Brande's book is completely contemporary and useful for the modern writer or wannabe. So truly -- Becoming a Writer is completely worthwhile, even necessary, to all who are writers or who would like to find out if they truly are writers.

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