Previously on The Occasional Writer, I told you how in her book Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about writers having a creative genius side and a workman/critic side, and writers must train themselves so that the two sides cohabitate harmoniously.
Hearing someone encourage you to develop split personalities sounds weird. I know it’s not literal, but talk about an odd defense.
“You see ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant was working on a novel about a woman who caught her husband cheating, so she cut off his penis.”
Of course, Brande is not talking about going all Sybil on someone:
There will be a prosaic, everyday, practical person to bear the brunt of the day’s encounters. It will have plenty of virtues to offset its stolidarity; it must learn to be intelligently critical, detached, tolerant, while at the same time remembering that its first function is to provide suitable conditions for the artist-self. The other half of your dual nature may then be as sensitive, enthusiastic, and partisan as you like; only it will not drag those traits out into the workaday world. It distinctly will not be allowed, by the cherishing elderly side, to run the risk of being made miserable by trying to cope emotionally with situations which call only for reason, or of looking ludicrous to the unindulgent observer.
Some of this hits home right now because I’ve tried to figure out how I want to arrange my professional life. A couple of months ago, I met someone who is supposed to be starting a local professional group, and someone else had recommended me as someone who could do content. Flattered, I met with the guy, and while everything sounded impressive, the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to do it.
For one thing, I’m not in a position to leave a full-time job and take a chance on just freelance writing. You’ve got to have your ducks in a row for a leap like that, and my ducks are all over the lake quacking and flapping and leaving feathers and poop everywhere, and I don’t have a way of herding them altogether quickly — unless I win the lottery.
Second, I’m not so sure I want to leave a full-time job and work strictly from home. Going through ten months of unemployment from mid-2008 to early 2009 showed me that. I have to have some sort of human interaction.
Finally, since I have to have a full-time job, I have a limited amount of time to write. Yes, I know all the techniques about finding time to write. Have you forgotten that I mentioned how I’ve read book after book about writing? I take a notebook and my Bag of Many Colored Pens with me to work in case I get time to write on my break.
What I’ve come to realize is that when I’m not at my day job — or on Monday and Wednesdays, my afternoon-to-night job — I want to work on my stuff, my stories. Look, I’m 41 years old now and I’m done waiting. People say there’s no perfect time to have a kid (even though I maintain that some times are better than others). Well, there’s also no perfect time to start a novel or short story or graphic novel.
I believe I’ve found where the split personalities go — the sensible one goes to work, helps students, occasionally answers the phone, comes home, cooks supper, gives the dog her insulin shot, pays the bills. Then the creative one gets to come out and play.
With my dad now fighting cancer, keeping those personalities in check is a little more difficult because my emotional side wants to go curl up in a ball and worry about whether all that is going to be okay. I suppose that’s also where the sensible persona becomes the taskmaster and tells the sensitive side, “Buck up. Shit happens. Go sit your ass on that chair and write.” However, Brande does say that the sensible side is also good for handling criticism.
It should not be your sensitive, temperamental self which bears the burden of your relations with the outside world of editors, teachers, or friends. Send your practical self out into the world to receive suggestions, criticisms, or rejections; by all means see to it that it is your prosaic self which reads rejection slips!
The important thing is to not let one side dominate:
For one thing, your writing self is an instinctive, emotional creature, and if you are not careful you will find yourself living the life that will give you the least annoyance and the greatest ease…. The “artistic temperament” is usually satisfied to exercise itself in reverie and solitude, and only once in a long while will the impulse to write rise spontaneously to the surface. If you leave it to the more sensitive side of your nature to set the conditions of work and living for you, you may find yourself at the end of your days with very little to show for the gift you were born with.
Conversely, if you can’t control the sensible side during the writing process, “it will be forever offering pseudo-solutions to you, tampering with motives making characters ‘literary’ (which is often to make them stereotyped and unnatural), or protesting that the story which seemed so promising when it first dawned in your consciousness is really trite or implausible.”
So I finish reading about splitting my personality, and my mind is clicking with all the advice she’s given so far; However, it’s as if she’s once again looking into my future recognizing that I’m about to dive head first into all this when I’m really a jump-feet-first-while-holding-my-nose sort of person. So she says, “Hold it! I know what you’re about to do!” Well, not exactly:
We customarily expend enough energy in carrying out any simple action to bring about a result three times greater than the one we have in view.
Seriously, it’s like she went and talked to my therapist.
Whenever you come across a piece of advice in these pages I exhort you not to straighten your spine, grit your teeth, clench your fists, and go at the experiments with the light of do-or-die on your countenance. Save your energy…. If you notice yourself on such an occasion, you will see that you must make a slight backward motion merely to retrieve your balance.
She advises going slowly because reversing old habits is not easy. In fact, she gives the best description for old habits that I have ever read:
Old habits are strong and jealous. They will not be displaced easily if they get any warning that such plans are afoot; they will fight for their existence with subtlety and persuasiveness.
How true is that? I’m telling you, this book is more like therapy for writers instead of instruction. Just the end of her “On Taking Advice” section offers another favorite gem for any unpublished or beginner writer:
Consider that all the minor inconveniences and interruptions of habits are to the end of making a full and effective life for yourself. Forget or ignore for a while all the difficulties you have let yourself dwell upon too often; refuse to consider, in your period of training, the possibility of failure. You are not at this stage of your career in any position to estimate your chances justly.
Once again, she’s the voice of reason — saying, “I see you wigging out about your abilities. Chillax. You haven’t even finished anything yet.”
Coming up on The Occasional Writer: I tiptoe into the shallow end of Brande’s advice and exercises by tapping into my subconscious and writing on a schedule. Stay tuned…