I’m a writer and a reader. I love all kinds of books. But I’m instinctively repelled by arm-achingly thick, academic-looking tomes that claim to be about the craft of writing. Those ones that include pie charts and Venn diagrams. I prefer to read words about words, am an admirer of the slender and concise, and firmly believe the best way to learn about writing is to read, and read widely. There are however a few very good books on writing and two in particular stand out to me: Stephen King’s aptly titled On Writing – which is easy to read, practical as well as fascinating, and – altogether different – Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.
I bought Brande’s book eight years ago, after reading Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writers: ‘Read Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t really need any others…’
In the 1920s Dorothea Brande had taught students in her creative writing classes how to hold their minds still in order to summon the inner writer; how to harness the unconscious mind, fall into an ‘artistic coma’, then re-emerge and be their own critics. Becoming a Writer was originally published in 1934, long before science discovered the important roles of the right and left sides of the brain, and though it might not appeal to everyone (particularly those who like pie charts), it was for me revelatory.
In Becoming a Writer, Brande expands on the strange state she calls the artistic coma; that state we fall into when we are completely engaged with and immersed in our work. It’s one of the reasons why her book was revelatory to me. Often when I’m writing I loose track of time – and I mean in a big way. My husband will tell me he’s off somewhere for the morning/afternoon, only for me to hear him return minutes later; only for me to realise that my minutes have been hours. This slipping of time used to freak me out – until I read Dorothea Brande’s book.
Brande not only explains this phenomenon but also how to access it via a simple form of mediation. And all her advice on stimulating the creative impulse goes back to one thing, solitude. Having time to dream, to sit idle and dull the outer world sets the creative mind to work, says Brande. Then she goes further; advising a period of not speaking or reading. By being alone ( – she encourages solitary pursuits such as going to a museum or an art gallery, taking a long walk or a drive, sitting on a park bench, or listening to music – whatever –), by starving ourselves and existing in ‘a wordless void’ for a while, by resisting any temptation to pick up a book, telephone, paper or any printed material (and I’m quite sure she would’ve included screens), Brande assures us that the words will come, and at a tremendous rate, because they have rushed in to fill the wordless vacuum.
Many writers will know and be familiar with the power of this ‘wordless recreation’ Brande advocates. Denied the written or spoken word, we inevitably begin to talk to ourselves and become evermore verbose internally. Why else do some of our most lucid thoughts, best ideas, plot twists and authentic dialogue often come to us in the middle of the night, when the inner critic of our conscious mind is resting? Which leads me on…
Some of the best advice in Becoming a Writer is that on controlling and silencing our inner critic, The Arrogant Intellect, as Brande calls it. She concedes it has a role, but warns that it must be kept in its place; its duties are indispensable but secondary, and come before and after the period of intensive writing: Nothing is more confusing than to have the alert, critical, over-scrupulous rational faculty at the forefront of your mind. The tormenting doubts of one’s own ability, the self-conscious muteness that drops like a pall over the best story ideas, come from consulting the judge in oneself at the moment when it is the storyteller’s tune to be in the ascendant.
Ah yes, the know-it-all, Arrogant Intellect. It’s always loitering, isn’t it? Peering over our shoulder, checking, overly-keen to suggest ways – and they are endless – in which our work could be improved. A good day is when you don’t hear from it, when you’re lost in your words, uninterrupted, and quite possibly in what Brande calls an artistic coma. But on a bad day you’ll feel its incessant nudging; and on a very bad day you’ll almost hear it: Call yourself a writer, ha! Egotistical, ever-hungry, it’ll devour your confidence – if you allow it.
Before I was published, when I wrote without too much thought on technicalities like structure, when I was focussed almost entirely on story, on getting the words out of my head and on to the page, I don’t recall much interference from my Arrogant Intellect. But it seems to have become more voluble with time. And I realise now that I’ve allowed this to happen. You see I forgot Dorothea Brande’s advice about keeping the intellect in check, about its role being only before and after writing. And I came perilously close, I think, to creating a mutant strain of Arrogant Intellect, a Monster Critic. But from hereon in, I’m determined it will know its place and in whose hands the real creative power lies.
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande is published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin
About BECOMING A WRITER
A reissue of a classic work published in 1934 on writing and the creative process, Becoming a Writer recaptures the excitement of Dorothea Brande’s creative writing classroom of the 1920s. Decades before brain research “discovered” the role of the right and left brain in all human endeavor, Dorothea Brande was teaching students how to see again, how to hold their minds still, and how to call forth the inner writer.
Judith Kinghorn is the author of four novels: The Echo of Twilight, The Snow Globe, The Memory of Lost Senses, and The Last Summer. www.judithkinghornwriter.com
Judith’s latest novel: THE ECHO OF TWILIGHT
“An enchanting, atmospheric work of historical fiction that is a rich blend of Downton Abbey andJane Eyre. The Echo ofTwilight is a wonderful novel to curl up with this winter.”–Booklist
From the acclaimed author of The Last Summer, a captivating and moving story of the unlikely relationship between a lady and her maid on the eve of World War I.
As I watched him—his long legs striding the narrow path through the heather, his golden hair catching the sun—I had a hideous feeling in the pit of my stomach. For it seemed as though he was already marching away from me.
In 1914, despite the clouds of war threatening Europe, Pearl Gibson’s future is bright. She has secured a position as a lady’s maid to a wealthy Northumberland aristocrat, a job that will win her not only respect but an opportunity to travel and live in luxury. Her new life at Lady Ottoline Campbell’s Scottish summer estate is a whirlwind of intrigue and glamour, scandals and confidences—and surprisingly, a strange but intimate friendship with her employer.
But when violence erupts in Europe, Pearl and Ottoline’s world is irrevocably changed. As the men in their lives are called to the front lines, leaving them behind to anxiously brace for bad news, Pearl realizes she must share one final secret with her mistress—a secret that will bind them together forever…