Good writing—even genius—can be taught. This beautiful truism is the essence of the wonderful, simple wisdom of Dorothea Brande (1893 – 1948), a creative writing teacher in the 1920s and ’30s. Her 1934 book, Becoming a Writer, was one of the first writing handbooks that believed writing was an issue of character, not just talent.
Perhaps it is true that self-delusion most often takes the form of a belief that one can writer; as to that, I cannot say. My own experience has been that there is no field where one who is in earnest about learning to do good work can make such enormous strides in so short a time. So I am going to write this book for those who are fully in earnest.1
At four o’clock you are going to write, come what may, and you are going to continue until the quarter-hour sounds. When you have made up your mind to that you are free to do whatever you like to do or must do.
She also, rather realistically, advised that while genius might be taught you must “be in earnest” for it to take root. Echoing Dani Shapiro’s counsel that writing never gets any easier, and if you can’t sit and do it, perhaps writing isn’t for you.
Before Brande waves her hand at noncommittal fidgety sorts, however, she describes various ways in which we fail in our attempts at writing. For example, the “One-Book Author”:
There is the writer who has had early success but is unable to repeat it. Here again there is a cant explanation which is offered whenever this difficulty is met: this type of writer, we are assured, is a “one-book author”: he has written a fragment of autobiography, has unburdened himself of his animus against his parents and his background, and, being relieved, cannot repeat his tour de force.
Or we might be an “Occasional Writer,” who painfully vacillates between richly fertile output and dry spells of tortuous nothings.
This initial empathy for the writer, this awareness from the author of what we (the reader and hopeful writer) might feel, is exceptional, and, in 1934, unheard of.
This edition’s introduction by John Gardner contextualizes Brande’s premise: “She is right that genius can be taught (once the secret emptiness of that phrase is understood) because in fact genius is as common as old shoes. Everybody has it, some more than others, perhaps; but that hardly matters, since no one can hope to use up more than a very small portion of his or her native gift. Every nightmare hints at the secret reserves of imaginative power in the human mind.” 2
Many, many more wonderful sections of this highly organized book include methods of originality, practice, abiding by schedules, meeting the duality of our self, and the role of a self-critic.
Writing is one of those bizarre professions in which you must, as Brande said, cultivate a writer’s temperament. John Cleese, a brilliant comedic writer, recognized that in writing you could sit entirely still and do nothing and yet still be working. Existing in that emptiness is not for everyone; Cleese always had a writing partner.
Brande, like Rainer Maria Rilke, Dani Shapiro, John Steinbeck, and countless others, recommends solitude for creative output. What Brande crystalizes, however, is solitude itself is null. What we really need is the ability to dive deep into a buried unconscious, almost a dream state. While solitude enables this plunge, it doesn’t guarantee it.
Now, if you’re not a writer and think none of this applies, hold still. Brande’s wonderful work is applicable to anything where success or failure is linked to our habits, our character, and (lack of) self-knowledge. If she were alive today, I could see a series of books: “Becoming a Parent,” “Becoming a Boss,” even, “Becoming a Better Human.”
Knowledge of emotions and psychology, self-awareness, and environmental insight are fundamental to self-improvement and creation. More wonderful books in this stream of thought include Rollo May’s 1975 work Courage to Create and certainly John Steinbeck’s personal thoughts as he wrote his last great novel, East of Eden.