Becoming a Writer: The Four Difficulties

Alice Faye
This is Alice Faye from Wake Up and Live (1937) – I can’t find a picture of Dorothea Brande

In writing a novel, it is not just your protagonist that embarks on a journey but you, walking alongside your fictional companion like a medieval hero and his chronicler. This is a long road so imagine it as you like; perhaps carrying a shield upon your back and a sword in your hand, hiking in the woods with your best friend, or maybe doggedly pushing a shopping cart with your kid through an apocalyptic wasteland armed only with a revolver and two shells. It doesn’t matter where this is, or when, or who you’re with; just accept that you’re walking, there are no shortcuts, and there will be bandits. Like your hero, you are going to face many obstacles before you complete your journey, and make no mistake it’s an arduous one which many more fail to complete than accomplish.

Way back before creative writing guides were ten a penny, when there wasn’t much to set you on your way bar Aristotle’s Poetics, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and whatever you could glean from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the New York journalist Dorothea Brande listed what she felt to be the most common barriers to completing this journey in her seminal book Becoming a Writer (1934). She called these ‘The Four Difficulties.’ Brande was an editor, writer and teacher, and she went on to write the bestselling self-help book Wake Up and Live, which was bizarrely adapted as a musical by Darryl F. Zanuck starring Alice Faye in 1937. Becoming a Writer can be applied to any type of literary endeavour, and the focus is on getting started and seeing it through. There are no tips on dramatic structure, character development or setting a scene; this is all about professionally and efficiently getting the job done.

At my old alma mater, the University of East Anglia, there are more copies of Brande’s book than anything else on the creative writing shelves in the library, even more than Professor Andrew Cowan’s Art of Writing Fiction, and all of them are only available on short loan. Eighty-odd years after publication, this slim little volume is a key text on the famous UEA Creative Writing MA.

Anyway, here are Brande’s ‘Four Difficulties’:

  1. ‘The Difficulty of Writing at All’ – This problem here is giving up before you begin, planning but not starting projects, and a general lack of confidence. This is often based on a common misapprehension that writing comes easily to professional authors because they have some kind of ‘natural talent.’ When the fledgling novelist discovers that writing is rarely easy they assume, wrongly, that they have no aptitude rather than accepting that they must work hard and be willing to redraft a piece many times to get it right.
  2. ‘The One-Book Author’ – These are writers who have had an early success that they feel they are unable to repeat. Brande suggests that such authors tend to have something they need to unburden, usually semi-autobiographically, and that once the job’s done there’s nothing more to do other than to stop or keep reworking the same idea. This is a loop that can be broken with detailed plotting, a willingness to experiment, an externalisation of self from project and a strong dose of ‘true grit.’ You are the novelist not the hero, and whatever you do in life, it’s determination as much if not more so than talent which will always get you through. An acceptance and understanding of story archetypes can also help you get past the impossible quest for ‘originality’ and the anxiety of influence.
  3. ‘The Occasional Writer’ – This is a ‘combination of the first two,’ says Brande, manifest in writers who can write well but only between long intervals of inactivity, periods which torture and torment them. This can be overcome quite easily by establishing a routing and then sticking to it come hell or high water.
  4. ‘The Uneven Writer’ – This is someone who starts well but cannot carry a story. Again, this can be overcome with detailed planning (character development and plotting), a disciplined routine, and a willingness to edit and revise.

So, what kind of writer are you? Personally, I can see myself quite clearly in the final two.

The good news is that any or all of these issues can be overcome with disciplined routine, and I cannot overstate the importance of writing regularly if you are serious about completing a novel. This is where most people go wrong; it’s much less about idea, originality, style and talent than it is about old fashioned commitment. Brande was very direct about this, and I remain wholeheartedly in agreement. If you can’t stick to the routine and actually write, she argued, then ‘your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy.’

For the formidable Mrs. Brande, there was no middle ground, and anyone whose done this will probably agree: ‘Succeed,’ she said, ‘or stop writing!’

So, that’s us telt then.


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