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Wednesday 19 September 2012

Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande, Reviewed

On 13 September, I posted a piece on the difficulties that often beset writers. In that post I mentioned Dorothea Brande’s excellent book, Becoming a Writer, and, having discovered I had never actually reviewed this seminal work, promised I would do so.

Here’s that review.

As budding writers, we’re all faced with a bewildering panoply of books on the techniques of the craft. As beginners, this huge bulk of work on how to perform the miracle many of us see as writing, can seem very daunting. So, why am I bringing to your attention yet another book, causing you further anxiety of deciding in which of the hundreds of volumes you should invest your valuable time and energy, let alone money? Well, let me first say that this attempt to persuade you of the value of this book isn’t aimed only at beginners. Well established, experienced authors will also benefit from the words of wisdom contained within this relatively slim volume.

The first clue is in the title. Becoming a Writer isn’t a technical manual. It’s not a guide to grammar, style or subject choice, genre, presentation or any of the many other, often contradictory aspects of writing that are shoved relentlessly at beginning writers. This, if at all possible, is the book you should read before you even contemplate immersion in the techniques of the trade. If that moment has already passed, worry not. I’d read dozens of technical books on the craft before I happened upon this wonderful book in the late 80s. But I wish I had come upon it at the very start. So much time and energy would’ve been saved and so much misunderstanding would’ve been avoided.

As Dorothea states so eloquently at the start of her encouragement to writers, we are all told, repeatedly, by books, lecturers, course leaders, and many others in the writing trade, that ‘genius cannot be taught’. Here, however, is a writer who exposes this lie and provides practical exercises aimed at discovering and freeing your own inner genius.

A word of warning: if you wish to continue your life believing yourself a writer without putting that possibility to the test, do NOT read this book. If you see writing as some sort of dilettante occupation involving no real work, DON’T read this book. Once she’s explained the lies behind the discouragement of so many of the writing trade’s so-called experts regarding the ‘magic’ of writing, she presents her readers with a hard choice. If, having attempted her initial exercises, you discover you’re incapable of following her advice, she suggests you take up some other career and leave writing to those who take it as the serious lifestyle it must be if anything worthwhile is to come from your scribbling.

This isn’t simply a book. In order to gain anything from reading it, the reader is required to undertake certain exercises. Initially, some of these may seem arbitrary, meaningless, pedantic, even a little odd. But, and I speak from experience, perseverance will pay out in spades. As a direct result of reading this book and following the advice, I’m now able to write anywhere, under any conditions, and turn out the germ of a worthwhile story more or less at will at one sitting. I believe that to be an aim worthy of effort. If you think there’s no chance of you ever achieving this level, read this book before you either give up writing or face the rest of your life in a state of dissatisfaction where your hopes have no chance of fulfilment.

I’m not going to attempt to provide a synopsis of the book. But I will quote a short statement taken from the back of the copy I picked up, second hand, for less than the price of a coffee. ‘Becoming a Writer…is unique and genuinely inspirational. She (Dorothea Brande) believes there is such a thing as the writer’s magic, that everybody has it in differing degrees and that it can be taught. This book is about freeing that unconscious ability in all of us.’

Both John Braine, who wrote the foreword of the edition I have, and Ted Willis have words of praise for the book. Braine claiming that it is ‘…the only book about writing which has been of practical help to me…’ And Willis describing it as ‘…the best book on creative writing and the process of creative writing that I think I have ever read…’

So, if you’re looking for a ready guide to discovering and utilising your innate abilities as a writer, and you’re prepared to put in the work required, this is the book for you. If, on the other hand, you’re only playing with the idea of becoming a writer, this is also the book for you; for it will confirm your lack of seriousness and perhaps persuade you to try something more suited to your personality.

I recommend it unreservedly to all those who take seriously the complex, wonderful, frustrating, creative, stimulating and rewarding art and craft of writing.

To buy the book:

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