This afternoon, while searching for something else, I came across an old copy of Dorthea Brand’s 1934 classic book Becoming A Writer. I had not thought about it in years and, because it was a lovely day here, I took it out to my back porch and began re-reading parts of it. I am not sure whether it is because I am now much older and have been writing for a long time, but I found the book surprisingly dated. Now I am wondering if that is just me, or if it is possible for a book such as this one to become dated.
To be fair, there was some good advice in it. One of the chapters, on learning to see, was something we cannot be reminded of too often. It has long been said that a writer is someone who misses nothing—a thought that I agree with. As an exercise, prompted by Brand’s suggestions, I decided to spend some time looking at the bushes that separate our backyard from the cemetery beyond them. This is quite a large bunch of bushes that have grown up over the years that run the length of the yard. From the ground they are towering and many people do not even know there is a cemetery back there, but from my perch on the second floor the view is different.
As I studied the bushes, I immediately picked out the multiflora rose bushes that smell so lovely in Spring, then the privet bushes with their lacy leaves. Other than those I counted the wild choke cherries that the squirrels get drunk on and stagger around the yard. But there were more. By the time I got done, making note of differences I’d counted a total of seven different bushes, some which I cannot identify. It was a good exercise and I learned that, though I’ve looked at those bushes for years, I’ve never really seen them.
In another chapter she talked about the method of writing. Obviously a lot has changed since 1934 and I could not help but smile at her annoyance with the use of typewriters (typewriters?) For writers accustomed to writing long-hand, the mechanics of pushing down those keys, watching the letters fly up and whack against the ribbon, then see the platen advance, was, apparently, arduous. Not to mention the fact that you had to then use your hand to mechanically return the carriage so you could type the next line. I can only imagine what Ms Brand would think of contemporary keyboards.
But to me the most interesting chapter was about originality. She made some excellent points about staying true to one’s own voice. She also pointed out some examples of writers who tried too hard to be original and wound up sounding pretentious in the process.
Which led me to wonder, do most writers think about being original these days? I wonder about that specifically when it comes to genre books. It seems that so many authors aim to produce the next Harry Potter, or the next Fifty Shades, or the next Game of Thrones. I often see books advertised as “if you liked The DaVinci Code, you’ll love this.” Has this type of advertising always been prevalent?
I have several vintage writing books that I love—especially those by John Gardner—and I know at one time I must have learned a lot from Dorothea Brand if I kept her book all these years. I am a firm believer that we can always learn something new and today I learned there are at least seven different kinds of bushes out back. I really should find out what they are.
Thanks for reading.