It may be that the root of the trouble is youth and humility. Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples: the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire of which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all.—Dorothea Brande
I suspect that every teacher hears the same complaints, but that, being seldom a practicing author, he tends to dismiss them as out of his field, or to see in them evidence that the troubled student has not the true vocation. Yet it is these very pupils who are most obviously gifted who suffer from these disabilities, and the more sensitively organized they are the higher the hazard seems to them. Your embryo journalist or hack writer seldom asks for help of any sort; he is off after agents and editors while his more serious brother-in-arms is suffering the torments of the damned because of his insufficiencies. Yet instruction in writing is oftenest aimed at the oblivious tradesman of fiction, and the troubles of the artist are dismissed or overlooked.—Dorothea Brande
The grain of truth in the fin de siècle notion, though, is this: the author of genius does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness, of a child, the ‘innocence of eye’ that means so much to the painter, 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 pigeonholing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word ‘trite’ hardly has any meaning for him; and always to see ‘the correspondences between things’ [I’ll write about this soon] of which Aristotole spoke two thousand years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.—Dorothea Brande
I especially love this last quote. I live in the SF/Bay Area so a lot of my writer friends are also intensely political, which can sometimes lead to its own unique brand of pigeonholing and sorting quickly into “dusty categories” and not so much to seeing each situation as new and immediate. Sometimes I think their hasty rush to generalization certain conservative positions, constituents, or politicians is a great detriment to their ability to consider humanity’s larger mosaic and treat those with whom they might disagree as having equal humanity to their allies. This runs the risk of characters that are hollow and didactic and writing that pushes more towards preachy—like when you’re watching Law and Order and they’re dealing with a culture war issue and you can pretty much count on the “tough cop” to parrot out all of one side’s talking points and you wince and hope someone kicks open the door with a knife REALLY soon.
It’s not that I don’t think politics dovetail with morality (they do) or that I have no moral code (I do) or that I’m apolitical (I'm not), but writers who intend to portray the humanity of their characters have to be willing to engage in some relativism and walk that mile in the other persons shoes—not half heartedly, but really.
Brande is so perfectly essential because one of her most fundamental concepts is moving through life as a dual entity. More than any other writing advice, I have ever seen, she expresses a very real sense that a writer develop a persona to deal with paying the bills and deciding what to eat for lunch and a persona that is constantly looking at the world as a writer and artist—not in a casual way, but in a deliberate, constant, ever-attuned way. She even takes a moment to disclaim the fact that make that she’s essentially espousing a “controlled” form of multiple personality disorder, and that she doesn’t really want you blanking out and waking up to find copies of the Great American Novel next to dead relatives on your desk.
This is sort of an obvious practice when doing things like reading. Indeed she has a chapter called Reading as a Writer. This isn’t to say it isn’t a skill or is a skill that is easy to master. Creative reading was a mandatory class for my Creative Writing major, and after 15 weeks of cultivating the skill, many of my classmates still wanted to talk nebulously about how deeply they felt when reading a work rather than what the author actually DID to invoke those feelings.
“Woah, that’s like….hella deep," they said as I quietly wished the building to be invaded by rabid lemurs.
But looking at the world through the lens of a writer doesn’t just have to happen when it’s obvious. Reading with an eye for how that author rearranged those 26 letters to evoke your emotions is kind of an obvious choice. However, one can watch TV as a writer, watch film as a writer, ride the bus as a writer, and sit in a café having lunch as a writer.
Personally I am notorious for not having my headphones on as loud as the people talking next to me think I do. I love my music, but mining people for character fodder on public transit is simply too rich a vein to ignore. Unless I’m listening to Jefferson Starship, of course.
Or Ke$ha. She's the bomb.