Wednesday, February 22, 2012
One Book to Rule Them All (And With Oversewing Bind Them)
This article has been punched up, revised, and generally made better here. Please read that version.
Back in the mid-nineties when I was going to Santa Monica College, during those rare moments when I wasn’t angsting out over my general lack of marriageability to a nice Muslim girl (long story) or pacing a car dealership on the graveyard security shift with a book in hand, I liked to wander from SMC (where I was taking classes) to UCLA (where I lived just off campus). I bussed to SMC each morning, arriving bleary eyed at noon for class, but with only a class or two, I often had hours to kill afterwards, and I would leisurely stroll home, taking a different route each time. Sometimes I’d go north then east, and sometimes east then north, and sometimes I’d zig-zag back and forth. This is a six mile distance catty corner to the street alignments, so I was never going to run out of new routes. I delighted in moseying down a new street I’d never seen before and gazing at new shops, restaurants, and boutiques throughout Santa Monica, Palms, Westwood, and sometimes even Brentwood. Often I got deliciously lost, and only knew it because I finally realized I was heading into the sunset (home was east).
It was during one of these fantastically lost moments, when I got turned around on some street or another without realizing it and eventually discovered that I was closer to the beach than the campus (on 40th if I’m remembering my Santa Monica geography correctly), and had been going the opposite way of home for nearly an hour.
That’s where I found the used book store.
It was one of those tiny holes in the wall that have almost faded out of time in the era of Kindles and book superstores. This was the nineties, so these kinds of places had only just begun seeing the first of the Visigoths coming over the hill. But even then, you could tell this wasn’t a shop someone took seriously as a way to make money. This was someone’s beach and margarita dream of retirement. Not one other soul entered that store in the two hours I was there. It would be nearly 15 years later before I saw the British comedy Black Books, but the way Bernard runs the bookshop but hates customers never failed to remind me of that place I found while lost in Santa Monica.
It must have violated a hundred fire codes. Books were stacked everywhere on shelves and off. Where one could see that once—years before—the shelves had been “a little too close to each other” to maneuver, books had long since metastasized out of the shelves and into the aisles, stacked shoulder high or higher. A tiny little path ran between these stacks to the various areas like a mouse maze. A left and two rights got you to the history section, which was literally under current affairs.
The guy that ran the place sat in a recliner amidst further stacks of books, tucked behind the counter which I can only assume was actually a counter, as it was so covered in books that it may have been made ONLY of books and I’d have been none the wiser. He barely looked up over thick, round spectacles as I jangled an old fashioned bell coming in. The register was one of those push button ones that was mechanical instead of electrical and made the little tabs pop up with the numbers on them. I didn’t get the feeling the register was an aesthetic choice.
“Comic books?” he asked pointing to his left. I shook my head with a bit of vigor and Spock-arched eyebrow, and damned if I didn’t notice the tiniest of smiles and nod that reminded me of the proud sensei in a martial art movie who didn’t want his pupil to get a big head.
I didn’t have work that night, so I must have dug around in the tunnels of books for hours. This was back when I had pocket money and before Amazon’s instant gratification THROUGH the Kindle, so I came back with a stack of books to buy half as tall as me.
But there was one book…
When I found it, I swear to you, I was on hands and knees and balancing slightly to get at the “Books on Writing section.” It had a strange sort of cover for a paperback—more like a soft cover—laminated plastic with swirly maroon and vermillion, and the simple title jumped out at me.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.
I’d love to tell you that it just looked interesting with its swirly cover, so I took it back as part of a big stack, paid for it, and the guy, when he realized that I was there to do more than just raid the vintage Playboy issues, helped me dig out a few other books on writing and comparative religion (to match another of my finds). “You’ll like that book,” he said, knowingly pointing to Brande as he rung it up. “I don’t see a price sticker on it though, so why don’t I just charge you a dollar for it.”
One dollar for the best book I would ever read about writing. One dollar for something I value at least as much as my $35,000 education. (Which, I’ll grant you, might have something to do with the fact that the U.S. government picked up the tab.)
I’d like to tell you that’s how it went. But this is how it REALLY happened…
You know that soundtrack for Lord of the Rings when they’re in the creepy forest. Even though that music hadn’t been written yet, that started playing when the light of my spelunking helmet hit it. Here it is if you need a reference. [It's blocked from embedding by the record label, or I'd just put it here.]
Yep. It was totally like that, except there was also that multiple-voice whispering that you see in movies where you can’t really make out the words, like happens when a character starts to reach for something that’s really powerful.
I touched the spine and felt something like electric current. The hairs on my arm stood at attention, and my heart raced. Over the whispers I heard one whisper saying something about ultimate power, and another seductively spoke my name. I slowly gauged its weight and sifted sand out of a burlap sack. Then with one swift move, I grabbed it and replaced it with the bag of sand.
Exactly. Like. That. Well…I mean, I’m leaving out the part with the boulder and the glowing, yet somehow dark, eye that kept saying it saw me every time I read the book, but whatevahooldes. Let’s stick to the important stuff, and forget about the dark lord of ultimate doom.
This is the best book about becoming a writer I have ever read—hands down and with none even approaching its equal. If you wanted to be a writer but only had fifteen dollars to spend, for all of time, on writing education, I would direct you to this book without a moment’s hesitation. Not a year goes by—not one year—that I don’t read it from cover to cover and discover some gem of wisdom I somehow missed before. It is no exaggeration to say that I haven’t had writer’s block even once in ten years because of THIS one book, nor ever waited longer than few minutes upon sitting down for the words to come. I haven’t always liked WHAT I’ve written, but I’ve never lacked for something to write. And while I talk about better and worse times of the day to write for me, I am talking about the difference between two hours of productivity and six and not about a time where the words simply don’t come.
There are two remarkable things about Becoming A Writer: this is not a book about writing—not even a little. You won’t find a drop of ink spilled about characterization or plot or setting or even grammar. This is a book about Becoming A Writer and Brande takes pains to explain the difference:
"Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer-the craftsman and the critic in him- are actually hostile to the good of the artist's side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two."
Brande goes on to discuss at length how different it is to be a writer than to know how to write. Since she feels there are plenty of books on the latter and a desperate need for books on the former she tears into the bit she finds lacking and leaves the vociferous musings on technique to prattle on within their own spheres. Skill in writing will do nothing to help writers who can only produce when in classes or only produce one story a year or write one novel and then stare at a blank page for the rest of their lives screaming “KAHN!!!” every couple of hours to an orbital camera shot of the earth against a backdrop of stars. The ability to write well, even the understanding of literary elements of fiction, will not tap the floodgates of creativity. In fact, many of these skills—absolutely valuable once one IS a writer—are useless if the ju-ju doesn’t flow.
In many ways I am thankful that I found Brande and worked with her for years before getting a degree in Creative Writing. I sort had the hard part of writing out of the way by the time I started worrying about craft. All I needed to do was just go learn how to actually write without sucking. (Still working on that one.) But I saw most of my fellow students (almost all in their teens or early twenties) struggling greatly with writer’s block or creative flow. They recycled stories over and over for various classes and even semester after semester, and some of them outright admitted that they hadn’t written anything except when they had to since high school. (They still thought they were destined for greatness, of course…) Some of them could really write too, but they weren’t writers.
As much of a “jump” as I sometimes lament my peers have on me by graduating at 21 or 22 instead their mid-thirties like me, in many ways I was ahead of the game by having first learned to be a writer. Often discussion groups topics were some level or another of my fellow classmates commiserating on how “impossible” it was to really actually write every day (“especially for, like…ya know…two or three hours. Who can, like, ya know…really even do that?” [Read that in valley girl inflection for maximum effect.]). Some of my PROFESSORS even admitted to not being able to sit down and write every day, but only when “the mood struck them” which might be a month or more between. And to make matters worse we often had guest authors that were one shot wonders and admitted not writing much since they produced their one hit. It didn’t take me long to realize that writing fluidly was not in the skill sets that were being taught amidst the lit heavy major’s focus on elements of craft, the incredible importance of narrative voice, and creative reading. Brande nails these problems between writing well and BEING a writer right in her first chapter and goes on from there to give you the equivalent of a cross fit routine with weight training to help combat it, so that you can open the sliding sci-fi ship doors driving a yellow hydraulic load lifter towards the alien queen of your excuses and say “Get away from her you bitch!”
Metaphorically speaking. I guess “her” is your creativity...er...or something.
It was cooler in my head.
The other thing that sets this apart is that Brande will not be coddling you. This is not a new-age, modern-day, feel-good book about how great it is to be a creative bohemian artist or Clam Chowder for the Writer’s Soul. This Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the enemy is your justifications for why you can’t. It is a how to guide for beating your muse into submission so that it’s working for YOU and not the other way around. Brande will not have you close your eyes and think of your totem animal eating berries with you in a tranquil sylvan glade. She’s going to put you to work. Hard work. Work that will, at times, make you question your ability (and even your inclination) to be a writer. Her exercises are not easy but they are effective in taming your muse, tapping your creative flow, and hacking your way through the thicket of your own psyche’s subterfuge.
Becoming a Writer is old enough to be seriously anachronistic—I swear it suggests you might even try your morning writing on the “new typewriters” that are all the rage. However, its messages are timeless, and as applicable today on the cusp of voice transcribing software as they were when Brande wrote them in the 30’s. Done with sincere application, her suggestions can develop the kind of habits that put the flip for the creative switch directly into your conscious mind. And such a skill seems to be truly elusive to almost every modern book on writing (Stephen King’s would be a notable exception) and writing program, which all seem to peak out in their profundity of creative habits at “Keep a Journal” and “Don’t give up, kay?”
I will keep coming back to this book and its wisdom time and time again here on this blog, but for now it’s enough to understand why I consider the craft OF writing and BEING a writer to be such very different ideas.
And the grand irony is THIS: Becoming a Writer is what most people want to learn when they pony up gobs and gobs of money for writing classes and spend half their discretionary income on writing books. They are often looking simply for the kick in their creativity’s ass that will make the blank page that taunts them go away. Plot and narrative and characterization can be fine tuned through deliberate study, but much of the sense of good writing simply comes from reading. Sitting down and not drawing a blank is not an academic skill or something you can read one last book to “get”—it comes from discipline, and Brande will show you how to cultivate that discipline. That is the elusive X factor that so many search for like The Holy Grail of writing. This book—right here—is what so many want. They don’t realize that they don’t really want to know how to write. They want to know how to become writers.
This book tells how.
And perhaps the best part is that since it's old enough to be off copyright, it is available for free on PDF.
There is one caveat to my story of the book that is absolutely true and not at all artistic license. I never found that little bookstore again, no matter how hard I looked. Never. I tried to retrace my steps a dozen times. I swore once I was standing on the right street. Everything was exactly as I remembered it that day—the sun against the Pacific, the smell of salt in the air and the cry of gulls. The spot was flanked by a new age soap and candle shop and a jewelry store, just like I remember. But in the place where I absolutely SWORE the bookstore had been was just this Mediterranean deli. The owner said he’d been there for twenty-three years. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might have been a book store way back then.
Something about that day has never failed to inspire me to believe that the universe might have a few tricks left up her sleeve for those who simply refuse to let go their sense of wonder.