The Occasional Writer Part 3: Cult of (Split) Personalities


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.

My pen bag... I might have a problem.

My pen bag… I might have a problem.

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…

The Occasional Writer, Part 2: There Will Be Setbacks


A couple of months ago, I diagnosed myself as The Occasional Writer — then proceeded to relapse back into those occasional habits. But I still believe I’m on the backside of those struggles.

lens8851771_1262747185becoming-a-writer-dorotheMy buddy Dorothea said in Becoming a Writer that once I’ve “begun to see what it is to be a writer, after you learn how the artist functions and also learn to act the same way, after you have arranged your affairs and your relations so that they help you instead of hinder you on your way toward the goal you have chosen, those books on your shelves on the technique of fiction, or those others which set up models of prose style and story structure for emulation, will look quite different to you, and be infinitely more helpful.”

Indeed, Dorthea’s book has become very helpful to me, and I believe that fact is because her book does not mean to teach the technique of fiction.

This book is not even a companion to works such as those; it is a preliminary to them. If it is successful, it will teach the beginner not how to write, but how to be a writer; and that is quite another thing.

According to Brande, writers have to foster split personalities — not to say that we need to start walking around talking to ourselves and answering our own questions — but we need to develop the artist’s side as well as the critic.

Brande describes the artist’s side as “‘the innocence of eye’ that means so much to the painter.” And I love the rest of her description:

The author of genius does keep till his last breath… the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new; to see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted from the hand of God instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeon-holing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word “trite” has hardly any meaning for him; and always to see “the correspondences between things” of which Aristotle spoke 2,000 years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.

Who’s with me on this one? Who’s been hit upside the head with a memory long forgotten and been inspired to write it down and relive it as a story? There’s those wonderful instances where you wake up from a dream with a fabulous story idea that you have to outline. Right. Then. Or, standing in the shower, you realize something that would make your current story click.

I cherish these moments as a writer; they help me realize, “Oh yeah, I guess I am supposed to do this after all.”

But Brande describes the other side the writer has to cultivate — the personality to keep the artist’s feet on the ground:

It is the side of the artisan, the workman and the critic rather than the artist. It must work continually with and through the emotional and childlike side, or we have no work at all. The writer’s first task is to get these two elements of his nature into balance, to combine their aspect into one integrated character.

And then one last awesome description:

There is always the workaday man who walks, and the genius who flies.

That genius helped me hammer out just under 2,500 words of a short story first draft a little over a month ago. It also helped that I had a friend reading excerpts I spit out over four days and who kept saying, “More!” and “Finish it already!” I know that a lot of writing advice says to keep the first draft to myself and send the second draft out, but I wasn’t it sending it to her for deep critiquing. There was a general disclaimer that I was just putting it out there and planned on rearranging lots of stuff in the next draft.

After I finished the first draft, there were some celebratory high-fives and chest bumps in the mirror, but now the less glamorous part of the writing life — revising. Luckily, I found an excellent series on deep revising from Sarah Selecky, and I’ve done part one of those exercises.

The second part, however, is more intensive, and while part of me looks forward to sitting down and doing it, those perfectionist tendencies start creeping in — the ones when I start saying, “I really want to have the whole day to do this.”

But I rarely get “a whole day to do this,” and I’ve been putting off the revisions long enough that I’m recognizing my pattern, (Thanks, therapy!) and I know I need to break the task down to do one or two pages at a time.

Does this mean I’ll never again go weeks without writing? Pffft, noooo… I’m not that naive. There will be setbacks, but having the ability to recognize when I’m stalling and finding new ways to develop my writer personalities, I’ll be able to tap into my inspiration’s milkshake and drink it up.

The Occasional Writer



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:

  1. The Difficulty of Writing at All
  2. The “One Book Author”
  3. The Uneven Writer
  4. 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.

Well, when you put it that way… Okey doke!

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…