Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande

I’ve always felt it important to pick up creative writing manuals every now and then as a refresher on certain skills or tenets that I feel should be instinctual by this point in my life. A lot of these manuals are little more than reference books, which is why I don’t typically put them down in my reading log. But Dorothea Brande’s book, Becoming a Writer, has been on my radar for a while now because I so often see it praised as a engaging classic of the form. It’s not a reference book by any means: it purports to give aspiring authors something more important, more foundational, than most technical manuals offer. It professes to tell you how to be a writer, rather than how to write. It also has the additional novelty of being first published in 1934.

What I didn’t know going in was how much this book is simply a primer for the would-be writer at the very start of his or her career; it’s very “beginner band”, as Lisa Simpson would put it. I’m not knocking it because of this: had an enterprising high school English teacher given me this book in the early `90s when I was first setting out, I would have been eternally grateful.

What I am knocking it for, I suppose, is that it’s extremely prescriptive and rigid in explaining how the creative process for an author should work. Brande makes a number of ghastly generalizations about how to begin writing, concepts that don’t take into account the fact that being creative means different things to different people. She talks about starting your process by writing very early in the mornings (advice I have no trouble with myself; my writing day begins at 4:30 a.m.) and then moving on by choosing a specific time of day to be a writer and writing at that time no matter what. While wholly unrealistic for most workaday people, there’s nothing wrong with putting forth this advice per se; it’s important to instill discipline in the beginner. But the specifics of her advice get a bit loopy by the end: she talks about how much coffee one should drink while writing, and even has a section on switching it up with maté, a South American form of tea.

There are other tidbits of guidance, presented as cold hard fact, that I do have a serious problem with. She advises, for example, that when deciding what to read for pleasure while you’re in the throes of a writing project, you should absolutely avoid books that are of a similar genre or topic as your own. Again, this may be true for some writers, but others (including me) would see it as silly at best and thoroughly unhelpful at worst. I don’t know how I would go about writing novels, short stories and poems of my own if I wasn’t constantly devouring books like that by other people. But that’s just me. The point is, each writer needs to find his or her own groove for writing effectively. It’s the instructor’s job to provide help in finding that groove, rather than telling every writer what that groove should be.

Anyway, I don’t necessarily want to dissuade people from reading this book. If you’re 15 years old and you found this post through a Google search, let me say that you may find something useful in Brande’s text. But allow me to recommend some other writing manuals that might be infinitely more helpful. These are books I turn back to again and again when I need to be reminded of my core tenets of process. (This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you have recommendations of your own, feel free to mention them below in the comment box.)

  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction, by Jack Hodgins
  • On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
  • Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard
  • How Fiction Works, by James Wood.
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write them, by Francine Prose
  • A Magical Clockwork: The Art of Writing the Poem, by Susan Ioannou

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