Becoming a Writer

Becoming a Writer is a slim volume written by Dorothea Brand in 1934, based upon her experience as a creative writing teacher. As Brande is quick to point out, this is not a book about stylistic technique or story structure. She’s happy to guide readers to other books for that (and there are far more now than there were in the 30s). This book is exactly what it purports to be: a book about how to become a writer, and not necessarily how to write well.

The intended audience seems to be college students or post-school adults who want to get into writing, but aren’t quite sure how to start. Rather than get into all the technical details, Brande suggests what they need is an understanding of how to get into a writer’s headspace, to learn how to think and work like a writer.

While some of the language feels outmoded and there are one or two references to streetcars, Brande’s book stands up well almost a century after its original publication.

Writing Practice

As a first task for a writer to tackle, Brande suggests getting used to writing daily. The prospective writer must embark on a plan of writing immediately after waking up in the morning, before doing anything else. Once this has become habit, she advocates setting specific writing times based on each day’s schedule, and varying them to get used to writing at any time of day.

As a night owl, I am already fairly miserable in the mornings, even when I do get enough sleep. I’ve tried “morning pages” with mixed success in the past. I’ve decided that this is advice I can follow on the weekends, but I’m hit-or-miss during the week.

On the other hand, I have recently tried scheduling mini writing breaks in the middle of my day. It works surprisingly well, and increases my output a small but noticeable amount.

The Mindful Author

Brande is of the opinion that most writers spend too much time discussing the conscious work that a writer has to do, and not enough on the unconscious part of the writing brain. She believes that much of what makes for great writing comes from this unconscious well of ideas, and that great writers learn to effectively use and cultivate it.

To this end, she offers a series of exercises that sound an awful lot like mindfulness and meditation to the modern ear, but must have seemed rather “out there” when the book was first published.

She encourages writers to pay attention to the world around them, observing it with as much child-like wonder as they can muster, and avoiding distractions. This observation, however, should be followed by carefully describing the exciting bits with exacting and detailed language—practice for the unconscious brain in observing, coupled with practice for the conscious brain in relating the raw experience through words.

She also believes that consuming stories while working on a story of one’s own will contaminate it with other authors’ voices. Instead, to release a writer’s inner genius, she suggests some mostly-mindless, hypnotic activity to help free the unconscious—whether that be walking, cleaning, sewing, etc. She essentially recommends cultivating a meditative state with the story as its focus.

Here There Be Writers

A short book with strong opinions, Becoming a Writer tackles the task of writing in a surprisingly wholistic way. On the other hand, it makes sweeping generalizations about artistic sensibilities in almost every word, and I can’t bring myself to believe that those kinds of generalizations ever apply to everyone. But it’s a unique take on the writing book, with ideas that kept me thinking well after I had finished it

Despite being a book of concrete ideas about how to cultivate a good writing process, it is surprisingly romantic—and even borderline mystical—about writers and their art. It treats us as dragons and unicorns, imbued with a certain amount of innate magic, but also gets detailed about the practical care and feeding of these creatures to get optimal results.

If you’re looking for a writing book that is more about getting in the writing headspace, and less about rehashing the hero’s journey for the umpteenth time or tightening up your first five pages, Brande’s book is a good choice.

Author: Samuel Johnston

Professional software developer, unprofessional writer, and generally interested in almost everything.

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