Becoming a writer

Becoming a Writer is the title of a 1934 book by Dorothea Brande that my brother Brian gave me more than 20 years ago, when I was struggling to find my voice.

What I remember from the book is that you should get up in early the morning, before anyone else is up, and “without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before, begin to write.” This as a way of channeling – her word was “harnessing” – the unconscious and getting going, so you’re not to worry about what you write. Don’t read it over. Put it away. What matters is to get the juices flowing. The enduring lesson of her book is that the early morning is the most precious time of day for a writer.

I followed Brande’s advice, as much as I was able. I got up, made myself a coffee, and sat down to put pen to paper. It wasn’t automatic writing, but it was journaling, and it did get me started. Within a few years, I had moved from Montreal to Budapest, and I had become a writer, even if I hardly dared to think of myself as a writer at that early stage. It was hard to write early in the morning when you have three boys to pack off to school, so I wasn’t following Brande’s advice very closely. Some days, yes, I got up before everyone else and made a start, but that can’t have been very often. Somehow or other, the juices started flowing. It helped that I had no office to dash off to at the time. I finished my first novel before we returned to Montreal two years later.

Back in Montreal, where I not only had breakfast to prepare and sons to look after but a full-time job, I started reading the newspaper with my first coffee – which is something I had not done in Budapest, where we had no newspaper delivery and I could not, in any case, read Hungarian well enough.

These days, my sons have all made lives for themselves, and I no longer have a job to dash off to. I have complete liberty to spend my morning as I wish. And instead of getting up and writing, I make myself a coffee and then sit down at my computer, for it’s rare for me to use pen and paper any more. I open my email and read it. I then answer a message or two and read the newspapers online. When I start writing, and I do start writing almost every morning, I will get a signal that a new message has come in, and more often than not I will check to see who has written to me. Which can easily lead me astray once again.

Email, the Internet, Facebook and newspapers – whether in print or online – are the enemies of writing. Reading is the enemy of writing. These are activities that are useful and even essential in their different ways, but not first thing in the morning, not for me, and not for Dorothea Brande. “Remember: you are to write before you have read at all.” First thing in the morning is the most precious time of day, and I have to reserve it for writing. The rest can wait. The rest must wait.

Whenever I find myself stuck, either because I am preoccupied with other work or – as now – when I’m struggling to get into the rhythm of writing again, I think about Dorothea Brande and her reassuringly old-fashioned voice. “Throughout your writing life, whenever you are in danger of the spiritual drought that comes to the most facile writer from time to time, put the pencil and paper back on your bedside table, and wake to write in the morning.” So here I am, on a Sunday morning, with my first cup of coffee, writing about Brande.

And adding, as a postscript, that there does come a time to read over what you’ve written. Brande asks you to put your morning’s writing away and wait for days if not weeks before reading it over and viewing it critically. I confess that I resist some of Brande’s instructions, testing to see what I can get away with – and still write. Can I risk going on to the Internet to check on a word? Can I revise a sentence? When I had written most of this particular piece, I went to look for my copy of Brande’s book to check what she actually wrote and quote from her.

At every stage, writing is a process. What works, works, and when it stops working, go back to first principles. For me those principles are Brande’s.

[Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer is in print in a 1981 re-edition published by Putnam’s in New York.]

Linda Leith

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