Dorothea Brande’s refreshing take on the writing life, Becoming a Writer, is a compendium of advice and exercises designed to bring the would-be or novice writer into close connection with his/her unconscious, help the writer develop healthy writing habits, and guide the writer past all forms of writer’s block.
Right from the start, Brande puts her reader at ease with her engaging, yet authoritative representation of the perils facing most writers: “I have had firsthand experience with almost every current ‘approach’ to the problems of writing, and my bookshelves overflow with the works of other instructors whom I have not seen in the flesh” (Brande 20). She’s thoroughly studied the problems associated with writing, she continues, and been both a successful writer and writing instructor of long standing. Because of her honesty and the obvious command of her subject, we know we’re in good hands. And that, in itself, is no small feat given the many books and classes out there that attempt to convince the average student or amateur writer that s/he is unteachable; that writing consists of mysterious techniques to be learned by rote; or that writers are a group of elite individuals with special talents and magical powers.
“[…] the difficulties […] begin long before he has come to the place where he can benefit by technical instruction in story writing” (21), says Brande, thus dismissing a dearth of “how-to” books that admonish the student of writing to simply hone his craft through the discipline of hard work. If hard work alone were an effective means of overcoming some of the challenges writers face, no doubt there’d be a lot less woeful stories of would-be and amateur writers quitting the field. Brande’s first chapter, “The Four Difficulties”, examines those pre-existing “difficulties” and suggests that those who wish to overcome them and discover what “many an author has come upon by happy accident” can be taught “simple, but stringently self-enforced, exercises” (25).
The remaining 17 chapters of her book are a combination of insights into the writing process and the writer’s life, with exercises designed to give the student of writing an experiential understanding of those processes and that life. Brande builds upon her thesis that writer’s need to understand certain elements of their psychology and behavior-the root problems and their remedies-in order to grow into effective and successful writers. She constructs her model of the writer from the inside out: here’s the problem and here’s how to address that problem at its most basic level. Then she lays out a carefully plotted sequence of exercises, examples and theoretical material designed to continue that transformation.
It would be foolish to think that Brande is suggesting that anything less than life-changing work is involved in Becoming a Writer. But she makes that work seem possible, manageable and something everyone is capable of in her systematic and comprehensive approach that’s engaging, demystifying and appealing.
It’s a further testament to Brande’s understanding of her subject and the humility of her approach-which makes it all the more winning-that she concludes, Becoming a Writer, with a bibliography of “writers on writing.” It’s a fantastic list of 20th Century writers who’ve thought about and written about the subject of being a writer. Brande’s final advice is: “Now read all the technical books on the writing of fiction that you can find. You are at last in a position to have them do you some good” (170).
Brande, Dorothea. Becoming a Writer. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1981.