Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review: Becoming a Writer

Becoming a WriterBecoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First published in 1934, Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer has been widely regarded as a classic. It must have been thrilling for young writers in the threadbare 30s to be able to access Brande in this way as I imagine she was among the first to offer guidance which neither reeked of pragmatism nor developed within the noble goals of the WPA.

In the 1930s many young writers were advised to gain some experience as a journalist if they wanted to be a writer in the long run--after all, you can make a dime that way. The artistic movement at the time, social realism, blended with this concept. A journalist could best experience the economic hardships and realistic portrayals of people and society if he/she was out in it. After all, the ills of society were everywhere.

Brande's advice moved writers in the opposite direction. As I read I kept coming back to 1934. Her advice is dated but charming, yet within the context of when it was produced--John Gardner (who wrote the forward) was one-years-old, Tropic of Cancer hit the bookstands, Ulysses had recently been allowed into the United States, and the mass inception of paperback books was less than a year away. Writing and publishing were changing. Social reality was being documented and held up to the light of art. Yet, Brande proposed that the developing writer had to treat the life they pursued as an art, yes, but in the purest sense. They had to work at it in solitude...the young writer's eye was not to be cast outward but turned inward on the self.

She makes the point that great musicians or painters don't cobble their talent by announcing to everyone they meet that they are a musician or a painter. No! The more you talk about it the less progress you will make as the brain and soul will grow satisfied with the mere affirmation--I am a writer. Don't tell people that. Sit down and write!

I imagine many young men and women leaving the old homesteads and flooding the streets of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore looking for work while telling people they are writers...for some ulterior motive: to protect their joblessness or perhaps to garner a little more curiosity from the opposite sex. Regardless, it must have driven Brande crazy as she returns to this sentiment often:

If at four o'clock you find yourself deep in conversation, you must excuse yourself and keep your engagement. Your agreement is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. If you must climb out over the heads of your friends at that hour, then be ruthless; another time you will find that you have taken some pains not to be caught in a dilemma of the sort.

I appreciate Brande's instruction. If you are going to write, write! Not only does she promote the setting up of a strict schedule as I've read and heard many contemporary writers swear by, she also suggests the purchase of two portable and silent if possible. And don't drink so much damn coffee, drink maté if you can. Charming. Type at all costs. Yet treat anything you write physically like a work of art, even if you are writing on a bar napkin after climbing out of the booth and over your date at happy hour. Hang on to that napkin more resolutely than you do the girl!

In the end, Brande's Becoming a Writer is interesting to me from a historical perspective. She was an original and if you read books on the craft published within the last decade you'll find many of her influences repeated. The concept that most of the source of what we write found seeds in our childhood (write what you know) is Brande. Read other writers, not just what you like is also Brande.

If you like history or have any interest in reading the book which would have moved a generation of great authors then Becoming a Writer is worth the time to read. However, if you are looking for advice or activities for your students or classroom there are other books published today which serve that purpose--this isn't that.

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