I’m slowly making my way through Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (though not too slowly; it’s on loan from the library). It’s an advice book written in 1934, and though it can be a bit quirky – there’s some discussion about the coffee-drinking habits of writers that are amusing – it’s an interesting read.
What I found especially interesting, though, is Brande’s suggestion that writers should practice something she calls duplicity:
So, for a period, while the conception is useful to you, think of yourself as two-persons-in-one. 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 stolidity; it must learn to be intelligently critical, detached, tolerant, while at the same time remembering that its first function it 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 un-indulgent observer.
The first advantage that will be gained by your innocent duplicity is that you will have erected a transparent barrier between you and the world, behind which you can grow into your artistic maturity at your own pace. The average person writes just too much and not quite enough to have any great opinion of an author’s life. It is unfortunate, but the unimaginative citizen finds something exquisitely funny about the idea that one aspires to make a name and a living by any such process as ‘stringing worlds together.’ He finds it presumptuous when an acquaintance announces that he has elected to give the world his opinion in writing, and punishes the presumption by merciless teasing. If you feel called upon to correct this unimaginative attitude you will have opportunities enough to keep you busy for a lifetime, but you will not – unless you have an extraordinary amount of energy – have much strength left for writing. The same plain man reacts as impulsively and naively to the successful writer. He is awestruck in his presence, but he is also very uncomfortable. Nothing but witchcraft, he seems to believe could have made another human being so wise in the ways of his kind. He will turn self-conscious, and act either untypically or refuse to act at all; and if you alarm him you will find yourself barred from one source of your material. This is a low piece of advice to give, but I give it without apology: keep still about your intentions, or you will startle your quarry.
Clearly Brande would approve of the quiet observation of fellow transit users and the unabashed listening in on conversations. I like that description of the ‘sectioning off’ of the self – I think there’s something to be said for being able to cope and flourish in the ‘workaday’ world. The reality of writing, I’m discovering, is that it is unlikely that it can be pursued without some kind of regular employment, and you can’t very well indulge the so-called artistic temperament during a staff meeting or in a cubicle. Nor should you. A time and place for everything, I think.
So I’m appreciative of the comments that Brande makes – and that she sees no conflict between the dual nature of the writer, and doesn’t believe that there should be. The rest of the book is hit and miss; some of what she says is useful, and some – like her suggestions on the kinds of typewriter and bond paper to buy – not so much. It is, after all, a self-help book. But a rather engaging one, at that.