With a little help, Janet Hughes

Becoming a Writer
Dorothea Brande
Macmillan, $29.95, ISBN 0 333 65377 7

The Writer’s Companion
Barry Turner
Macmillan, $34.95, ISBN 0 333 62133 6

In 1934 when Dorothea Brande wrote the much-reprinted Becoming a Writer, people didn’t say “I’m not a morning person”; but, supposing one of her students had tried it on her, I suspect she would have told them they lacked the moral fibre to become a writer. The tone of the book, like so much about it, is a little dated, but also part of its charm — stern and uncompromising, agreeably direct and utterly authoritative. The steely glint in the purposeful prose suggests she means all advice to be taken literally and rather in the cod-liver-oil spirit. This seems to me both a strength and a limitation of the core of practical advice at the centre of the book, which follows 60 pages on overcoming “resistance” and precedes as many on tapping one’s “genius”.

Ms Brande first requires the student (she is above all a pedagogue) to write daily upon rising an hour earlier than usual and before doing anything else. A thermos of last night’s coffee is admitted but there’s no sneaking out for a quick latte. The drill is to write daily upon waking, without deliberating or hesitating or revising — now we’d call it free-writing — in order to gain fluency and overcome inhibition; then after a while to write daily at an appointed time, to promote discipline.

Only when these habits are well established does she permit the student to review the work. Sensible, if rather general, advice is offered on self-criticism and re-working, though I found the scarcity of examples worrying. But you may not reach this stage at all, should you fail the moral fibre test. If your “incorrigibly lazy” “unconscious” should refuse to deliver to her timetable,  Ms Brande washes her hands of you, with

…the solemnest word of warning you will find in this book. If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.

If this were the whole story, someone else would be writing this review. Fluency and discipline are plainly necessary to the professional writer. But Brande assumes that, because a particular regimen has proved effective for her and presumably for her students, a different or a less rigid one will not work for anyone. Her inflexible advice is unaccommodating  of human idiosyncrasy, starting with body clocks; it is also premised on outdated assumptions. She occupied a world where a headache or reluctance to break off conversation impolitely were the “resistant” writer’s likely excuses — not a word about work, say, or domestic obligations. Need I add that monetary costs or rewards are genteelly never mentioned?

This book really should be called Becoming A Realist Prose Fiction Writer, for it recognises no other genres or possibilities. On the one hand an obvious limitation, this constraint also lends a certain strength, ensuring that the concrete advice on effective revision is focused and purposeful. I assume that this is one reason for the book’s enduring popularity. Another might be its sheer rhetorical power; for all that it is slightly old-fashioned, the lucid, graceful prose of a more leisurely and formal age, it has a persuasive force channelled into imbuing readers with confidence in their own potential and in her will and ability to harness it.

If you can get through (or around) the rigid preliminaries, you could still be put off by the Freudian premises about the role of the unconscious and “magic” in writing. Sceptical of the theory, I found that Brande managed to translate it into practical recommendations for cultivating originality, among them a species of meditation to still the mind and banish distraction. I admit to fascination but haven’t put it to the test. Who knows; it might overcome the obstacle to fiction-writing she doesn’t mention, the one which always defeats me — a complete inability to invent plots, never mind improve them.

The Writer’s Companion takes up where Becoming A Writer leaves off and treats of being a writer. It isn’t for misunderstood geniuses in garrets (whom Dorothea Brande at least flatters with talk of the “true artist” and the “writer’s temperament”). Barry Turner addresses himself robustly to the avoidance of starvation and the misunderstandings — of genres, markets and the publishing industry — which tend to lead to it. If writers are a resource (we’d like to think so, wouldn’t we?) this book is about their sustainable management. It is packed with practical advice for those who seek to earn all or part of their living by writing of whatever kind.

The Companion is written for the British market so some specific advice — on tax, grants and awards, and theatre companies, for example — does not apply here and you would be better served by a local handbook. But this does not render the Companion irrelevant. Turner deals with many large topics succinctly: bestsellers, children’s books, sitcom, poetry, learning to write and freelancing; writing for radio, film, television and multimedia; and agents, accounting and copyright. His approach is to examine the structures — the genre, the medium, the industry, the market — into which the writer must insert himself or herself to write profitably, then to offer literary and tactical advice accordingly. Most of this advice on procedures, snares and possibilities is transferable in principle to the local context with commonsense adjustments. At the very least it should equip you with the questions to ask, where the answers differ.

I found The Writer’s Companion indeed a companionable book. It offers lively, witty writing about a world which is inherently interesting. Turner’s style is pleasantly astringent and his irreverence refreshing after Brande’s prescriptive solemnity. Not only 60 years but also the Atlantic separates these books. Turner, despite the scepticism, delivers encouragement, while Brande, so the publisher’s subtitle tells us, deals in inspiration. They have different constituencies, in terms of practical needs and also of dispositions and belief systems, Turner’s being accommodating, Brande’s essentially puritanical.

Nevertheless, Becoming a Writer has been re-issued here by a British publisher, with a laudatory foreword by Malcolm Bradbury and blurb by John Braine. And lest the dichotomies I’ve drawn should imply irreconcilable differences, consider this: in his warily sceptical chapter “With a Little Help from the Experts; Learning to Write”, Turner quotes with approval Braine, Bradbury — and Brande. And he endorses her advice about who should give up and when, the very passage that I quoted so dubiously above.

Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer and scholar. 

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