Becoming a Writer is a how-to book from Dorothea Thompson Brande published in 1934. While I have been writing since my teen years, the seriousness of the craft wasn’t evident until somewhere around 2001; sixty-seven years after this how-to. Granted, I have read dozens of how-to books and articles, attended all sorts of events with and about writers and genres, while trying to figure “the secret” to a great novel. They all said, mostly, the same thing. Oddly, I didn’t gain a lot from them in that writing seems to be a fairly simple process. I did learn some of the technical truths behind writing; arcs, acts, tenses, POV, technique of fiction, plot constructing and character development. All those things that, when you chat about with other writers, help you sound like a writer.
It’s like singing. One can learn the technical aspects of breathing, scales, etc., but if you don’t have the voice none of it matters. On the other hand, if you have “the voice” the technical aspect won’t make a big difference. With writing, I have found there are no secrets; no society, no blood oath, and you don’t have to sell your soul to the devil. The fact is, writing is hard work—harder for some than others. A lot of failure in writing comes from one trying to write something they know nothing about. On the other hand, one has to ask; how does it work? I don’t think any writer can answer that question. Some say it’s magic, and with that, I have to believe them. I also believe you can teach the student the mechanics, and they can talk a good game, but you will never teach someone to write any more than you can teach a blind man to see or a deaf man to hear. Real writers know this. Wannabes won’t believe it.
I found Becoming a Writer a fresh (80-year-old) approach to writing and what being a writer means. I believe it’s a factor in what captivated me with the reading; being so old in word and style and yet so true. Maybe it was the how in which we as writers have always been the same. My point; I have read the classics; Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., and found, because of the timeframe, the language, the style or writing, it becomes a chore to get through the story. It’s old writing and often and simply not the way we talk any more. For example, in a line from a Hemingway novel he states, “Aren’t we having a gay time?” Yeah…that wouldn’t work out to be quite the same today.
Becoming a Writer seemed to cut through all that, and while it used some older language/style, it wasn’t intrusive. It abolished some of the inherent gossips formed within my brain about what a writer is all about: alcohol, coffee shops, ball caps, broken or troubled souls, eccentric behavior, massive readers, intellectual, and perhaps, in some cases, genius, and of course, walls of books in my library. Interestingly, those “quirks” never made a lot of sense although I have many books, favorite coffee shops and a few ball caps. Some even consider me quirky or eccentric (What? Because I have a thing about red socks and Hawaiian shirts?) and some, genius although I have my own doubts on the later. Granted, I have read a lot, but not in gargantuan style as compared to some. My reading has consisted of novels found in airport stores and gave me something to do while waiting, flying, taxing, landing, traveling from point A to point B. Do I continue to read? Absolutely, but I read because I want to, or want to learn something, or am I studying style? DTB says, “In their off-hours they [writers] can usually be found reading in a corner, or, if thwarted in that, with other writers, talking shop. A certain amount of shoptalk is valuable; too much of it is a drain. And too much reading is very bad indeed.”
Whoa! What kind of nonsense is this?
Too much reading is bad indeed? When I thought about this, it was a divulgence of many past thoughts. Every writer today is told, read, read, read. You can’t read enough! The more you read the better writer you will be. DTB in opposite says, no not true. The truth is too much reading is bad for your psyche. When you think about it…or at least when I thought about it, I could see the truth.
When I read, I take on the character within the novel. I become Pip in Great Expectations, or Jake Barnes, American veteran of World War I working as a journalist in Paris, or I fall in love with Lady Brett, or perhaps I become Alex Cross, forensic psychologist. When I write, I become the character of my story. So if I am trying to write a story while reading another writer’s work, guess what happens unconsciously? That’s right! All those characters come inside your head and watch you. If one reads in elephantine style, all those characters will forever live inside your head and pop out at the most inopportune times. In other words, quiet the head and let your own imagination talk to you. In short, here is what DTB said:
If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theater, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.
Like I said earlier, ‘a divulgence of many past thoughts.’ I realized she was right. In retrospect, I thought about music and what it does to my creativity. I thought about how often I resolve the most complex issues while walking alone, quietly fishing, sitting in the woods or a park bench while watching ocean waves lap against a sandy shoreline. I thought about how often, after reading, I was simply exhausted as if I were in the story and for hours the effect of the story would invade my actions. I began to realize the story become you and you become the story. Then I thought…If I have someone else’s thoughts in my head, where in the hell are my thoughts?
DTB continued with regard to a well-known writer that would sit for two hours a day on a park bench. He used to lie on the grass of his back garden and stare at the sky, but some member of the family always seized the occasion to sit beside him for a nice talk. He would begin to talk about the work he had in mind would discover the urgent desire to write the story disappeared as soon as he had got it thoroughly talked out.
There are only two people I know of that have said this. The other was Hemingway toward the end of his Nobel prize acceptance speech.
“A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.”
I have a pen holder on my desk—a gift from my son—to remind me of this. Of all the rules I have read about writing, this is one of the truest. Do you recall how tired you are after a long conversation? Writing is no different. If you explained your story (not yet complete) to a colleague, very simply you would talk it out leaving you little to write.
I think this is a challenge with writer’s critique groups. Each week you take in a bit of your unfinished story and read to your peers. They critique, which means, changes your mind, style, words, thoughts, and they send you off feeling like you have fucked something up. The truth is, they are your words and your style and the only person that should say anything is your editor and (hopefully) publisher. I think one should complete their story and then (and only then) take the semi-edited version to your colleagues for review. The one rule to remember is that opinions are like armpits. Everyone has at least two, and they usually stink.