Mood: hmmm…not really sure. Fine, I suppose.

Currently listening to: Archangel by Burial

Today I finished Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. This book was recommended on a couple writing panels I’ve attended, as well as by a few writing instructors, as a good book for writers who are just starting out. And I have to agree. I really wish I had read this book before I read all the other craft books or took a class. Instead of focusing on the specifics of plot, character, setting, scene, or dialogue, Brande focuses on establishing a writing practice and how to become a writer by tapping into the unconscious. She says that most beginning writers start reading the craft books and attending writing classes not because they want to know the specifics of what makes up a plot, or what one needs to do to create an interesting character. Rather, they want to know how to be a writer.

Even though this book was published in 1934, it holds up incredibly well. Here are a few of her recommendations & ideas that stuck with me:

  • Write first thing. Brande recommends that a writer write first thing in the morning, before they talk to anyone, read anything, or watch TV; before the external world assaults the unconscious. The idea is to write while still emerging from the dream state, free of outside influences. You can write about anything. It doesn’t have to be the story or idea you are working on. Just whatever comes to mind. And then, don’t read what you’ve written (at least for awhile).
  • Find your natural word count. After a few days, your natural word count will emerge. This is the number of words you can “write easily and without strain.” Once you know this number, she says “push it ahead by a few sentences, then by a paragraph or two. A little later try to double it before you stop the morning’s work.”
  • Make an appointment. Once the morning routine is established, she instructs a writer to schedule another time to write every day. This appointment must be kept no matter what. It can be as short as 15-minutes. The idea here is just to get on a schedule. I know I often complain that I’m just not in the right headspace to write, and I’ll take the day off. Brande says this is the wrong thing to do. As writers, we need to train our unconscious to work on command, not when it likes. So, the morning and scheduled writing sessions should be adhered to until “you write fluently at will.”
  • Read what you’ve written. After some time has passed, go back and look at what you wrote during your morning writing session to see what you do well, where your weaknesses lie, what themes reoccur and are natural for you. This evaluation should give you an idea of the kind of writing that works for you, and maybe some ideas for what you could write about. While I haven’t yet done the morning writing sessions, I always keep a notebook with me to write whenever an idea or mood strikes me. More often than not, what comes out has little to do with the story I’m working on. Rather, it tends to be more stream-of-conscious or random. When I do look back at those pages, there definitely are reoccurring themes which I can tell I write more naturally on than others. I’m curious to see what would come out of these morning writings.
  • Read a book twice. First read the book to enjoy it. Then, put it aside of awhile, but come back later and read it again. This time look at it in terms of technique and craft. As Brande says, “learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work.” This is something I know I need to do and plan to do in the coming weeks. There are definitely some books that have resonated with me in terms of style or technique that I need to study more closely as I move forward in my own work. Not to mimic them, but to figure out other ways of doing things.
  • Be aware. Walk the streets as if it was your first time there. Look at the world around you as if you’ve never seen it before. Note the details. Use all your senses. Be aware of your surroundings. Our daily lives are seeped in routine. We drive the same way every day. We go to the same stores. We talk to the same people. We forget to look, to listen, to smell, to feel what is around us. Brande recommends taking 15-minutes to “notice and tell yourself about every single thing that your eyes rest on.” Do this once or twice a week. In addition to developing your senses and observation skills, this exercise pushes you to learn to describe things using “definite words.” Too often, words fail us when we have to describe a smell or color. The idea within these 15-minutes is to not only notice the details, but to take the time to describe them to yourself so that when you have to describe them in your writing later, the words will come a little easier.
  • Be original. While the boy meets girl story has been told over and over again, what makes it different is the writer. Every writer comes to their story with a different perspective that can make a seemingly trite idea stand out as original and new. Brande mentions how twins starting with the same story idea will approach it from a different angle. So don’t worry that your story has been told before. Unless you’ve already written it, it hasn’t been told before.
  • Find wordless recreation. Brande advises that a writer have a hobby or diversion that is wordless. I know one of my hobbies is reading. I love to read. But reading is a word based hobby and not conducive to freeing up your unconscious. By pursuing wordles recreation, she says, the writer will be stimulated into writing. When you do something that is wordless, whether it be knitting, walking, sitting, or whatever, your mind is able to wander and go to work on whatever story or idea you are working on. I definitely agree with this. I know that when I have a writing dilemma in my story, the best way for me to work through it is to get away from words–writing, reading, talking, etc. So, I’ll go for a drive, a walk, or take a nap. Inevitiably, without the distraction of other people’s words, my mind starts to work things out. Brande notes that when authors are asked about themselves, rarely do they mention spending their non-writing time reading. While they love to read, they “all learned from long experience that it is the wordless occupation which sets their own minds busily at work.”

While some of Brande’s ideas were things I already knew I wanted, needed, or should do, there was something about the way she wrote about them that helped me see & understand why I should be doing them. Her idea of the “artistic coma”–that state of mind you reach through meditation where you are “indifferent to everything on earth except what you are about to write”–really appeals to me. I know that I’ve come to close to it on a number of occasions. And when I do, those words are the ones that I feel closest too. Unfortunately, I know that most of what I’ve written over the last couple of months has not come out of that place. Rather, I’ve been focused on pushing through the story to just get a draft–and pages & words. My goal for the next draft is to try and work more from that place and to be more conscious of where I am working from.

So, my overall review: Definitely one of the best writing books I’ve read. If you’re just starting out, read it before you read anything else about the practice of writing.

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