As part of my quest to live up to my 2013 word, finish, I did a sort of self-diagnosis. The good news is my problem is not life-threatening (probably only because I didn’t check WebMD). The bad news is I’ve probably gone about this writing stuff the wrong way.
According to Dorothea Brande, anyway. In her 1934 book, Becoming a Writer, she says that there are four main difficulties writers could face before they can benefit from “technical instruction in story writing.”
She goes on to talk about what a writer in this situation does, and on first reading this passage I thought, Holy crap, was this woman looking in a crystal ball at me? If so, that’s pretty creepy.
[H]e believes that accepted authors have some magic, or at the very lowest, some trade secret, which, if he is alert and attentive, he may surprise. He suspects, further, that the teacher who offers his services knows that magic, and may drop a word about it which will prove an Open Sesame to him. In the hope of hearing it, or surprising it, he will sit doggedly through a series of instructions in story types and plot forming, and technical problems which have no relation to his own dilemma. He will buy or borrow every book with “fiction” in the title; he will read any symposium by authors in which they tell their methods of work.
I thought about what I’ve done over the past couple of years — looking for conferences and workshops to attend and buying books on writing — and wondered, Is this my problem?
And the first chapter said, “Yes, you’re an idiot.” Brande describes the four writer difficulties:
- The Difficulty of Writing at All
- The “One Book Author”
- The Uneven Writer
- The Occasional Writer (yours truly)
What hit home was her description of the writers as ones “who can, at wearisomely long intervals, write with great effectiveness” and then experience long dry spells of no writing.
Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! How many times have I gone from active to inactive on this blog alone? More than I would like to count, that’s for sure.
Her reasons for this difficulty also hit me upside the head:
Often it is the result of such ideals of perfection as can hardly bear the light of day. Sometimes, but rarely, a kind of touchy vanity is at work. which will not risk any rebuff and so will not allow anything to be undertaken which is not assured in advance of acceptance.
“Ideals of perfection” party of one! That flaw of mine not finishing things smacked right on the nose. I don’t doubt the “touchy vanity” either. Hello? I prattle on thinking my plight is interesting to complete strangers who visit this blog.
I have enjoyed going to those writing conferences and workshops and reading those books, but I have also realized over the past year or so that I seem to already know what they are going to say. Sure, I love the atmosphere and camaraderie of the events, but the tips and techniques start to sound the same — probably because of this:
Almost everyone who buys books on fiction writing, or takes classes in the art of the short story, suffers from one or another of these troubles, and until they have been overcome he is able to get very little benefit from the technical training which will be so valuable to him later. Occasionally writers are stimulated enough by the classroom atmosphere to turn out stories during the course; but they stop writing the moment that stimulus is withdrawn.
So while I don’t plan on giving up the conference/workshop circuit entirely, I do plan on NOT buying anymore books on writing. Instead, I’m referring to ones I already have in order to accomplish Brande’s suggested plan: “first considering the main difficulties which you will meet [Done!], then embarking on simple, stringently self-enforced, exercises to overcome those difficulties.”
I take that second part to be a nice way of saying, “Get your ass in the chair and write, dammit.”
I’ll be consulting Brande’s Becoming a Writer and One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft by Susan Tiberghien. There might be two others, but I’ll get to them as I need them.
More thoughts and results from exercises to come. Stay tuned…