Dorothea Brande on Being a Stranger in Your Streets

Most of us stumble through our lives in an insensible stupor, asleep to the sensory details of physical reality.  We may go to the grocery store once a week but when was the last time we noticed the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the bakery?  We walk through our neighborhood almost daily yet do we see the charming old-fashioned street lamps, the lemon tree against the spring sky, the lavender and red geraniums, the tire swing and oak tree? 

It’s a tragic fact of life that we become blind the more we see something.  Take your significant other as an example.  Perhaps when you first met your paramour, you were absolutely infatuated with her.  During the giddy days of first love, your heart leapt after her every text message, sank when she didn’t call.  The more you learned about her, the more you became convinced she was the long-lost half of your Platonic soul: her favorite book was Love in the Time of Cholera, her favorite singer was Otis Redding and she wanted two kids, a boy and a girl.

As you headed to her house to pick her up for your first date (a picnic in the park), your palms were so sweaty you could barely grasp the steering wheel.  You arrived promptly at noon, climbed the front steps and knocked on the door.  Nervous, you shifted your weight from one foot to another.  “God, I hope I don’t make a fool of myself,” you thought.

When she came to the door, she instantly charmed you with her self-possession (“Hi, I’m ___,” she said so confidently, reaching out to shake your hand).  You couldn’t resist her cat eye sunglasses and polka dot dress.  “Nice to meet you,” you replied, momentarily forgetting how to arrange words into sentences.  As you chatted over lemon rosemary tea and cucumber-rye sandwiches, you couldn’t help but fall in love with her infectious laughter, the dramatic way she told stories and made gestures with her hands.  When the time arrived to take her home, you were the perfect gentleman: you walked her to her door, gave her a polite kiss on the cheek.  “I had a lovely time,” you said genuinely.  It was only an afternoon but you were already fantasizing about eternity.

Fast forward a year and the woman whose mere presence once made you as shy as a school boy is now your significant other.  Though you once dreamed of having the opportunity to kiss her, your lips now meet with such regularity— first thing when you wake up, when you leave home for work, when you go to sleep in the same bed every evening— that the miracle is lost on you.  For so long, your beloved was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after a few months of being together, it is the time before you knew her, before she was casually saying “I love you” and arranging plans for your birthday, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.

Sadly, the more familiar we become with something, the more likely we are to take it for granted.  Just as we stop appreciating the object of our obsession once they become our boyfriend/girlfriend, we cease to notice things once they become commonplace parts of our day.  Take the internet as an example.  When the internet first made an appearance in the 1990s, we were in wonderment of the worldwide web.  We marveled at its speed, the miraculous way it could connect people across continents.  Now— with just the click of a button— we had all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips.

Today, however, we are no longer in awe of the internet.  Though we carry an internet-powered computer in our pockets, our phones are as astounding to us as a light switch.  We’ve forgotten that a mere hundred years ago, phones could only do one thing: transmit sound.  We take for granted that today they can measure our heart rate, track our circadian rhythms, take pictures and write emails.

stranger in the streets

But if we want to write, we must not lose the ability to see and be astonished by things.  In her timeless classic Becoming a Writer, which I consider one of the best books ever written on writing, Dorothea Brande suggests a writer must recapture a childlike awareness of the world.  Unlike adults, who very rarely inhabit the present (distracted as they are by serious obligations and mortgage payments), children only exist in this moment: they don’t dwell on the fight they had with Sally yesterday, they don’t worry about their show-and-tell presentation tomorrow.  They find unbelievable joy in the smallest things: playing in a sandpit, slipping down a slide, jumping off a swing, blowing bubbles.

Children are curious creatures.  Spend an afternoon with any child under the age of twelve and you’ll be tasked with solving the universe’s most mysterious riddles: why is there day and night?  why is the sky blue?  where did the dinosaurs go?  Because they’re young, children have yet to become weary of the world: they can still be surprised by learning something they didn’t know.  We adults, however, are convinced we’ve seen it all.  We know there’s day and night because the earth rotates about its axis once every twenty four hours; we know the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor 66 million years ago.  It’s hard for us to awe at a hummingbird’s incredible speed or wonder at a butterfly’s patterned wings outside our window.  We marvel at Cassiopeia and cumulonimbus clouds as often as toaster ovens and cutting boards.  Why?  Because habit has desensitized us.  As Brande writes,

“The genius keeps all his days the vividness and intensity of interest that a sensitive child feels in his expanding world.  Many of us keep this responsiveness well into adolescence; very few mature men and women are fortunate enough to preserve it in their routine lives.  Most of us are only intermittently aware, even in youth, and the occasions on which adults see and feel and hear with every sense alert become rarer and rarer with the passage of years.  Too many of us allow ourselves to go about wrapped in our personal problems, walking blindly through our days with our attention all given to some petty matter of no particular importance…The most normal of us allow ourselves to become so insulated by habit that few things can break through our preoccupations except truly spectacular events— a catastrophe happening under our eyes, our indolent strolling blocked by a triumphal parade; it must be a matter which challenges us in spite of ourselves.”

So how do we become more mindful?  Brande recommends we recover a childlike “innocence of eye”— a wide-eyed interest in the world.  Rather than remain asleep to the splendor of living, more dead than alive, she suggests we set aside at least a half an hour each day to awaken our senses and simply observe.  What do we see?  hear?  If we’re taking the subway to work, what do we notice about the people there?  Where are they headed?  What do they wear?  If we’re stopping at our favorite cafe for a cappuccino, what do we imagine is going on with the couple in the corner?  Is the woman stirring her tea in silence because she’s irritated with her husband for forgetting to do the laundry or because she’s just discovered he’s having an affair?  Our goal: to treat every place as a potential setting, every incident as a potential plot line, every person as a potential character.

The greatest writers of all time were— above all— alert.  Hour after hour, minute after minute, they were attuned to their experience.  Turn to any page of Anais Nin’s diaries, for example, and you’ll find descriptions of accomplishment-obsessed New York and romantic, restful Paris, detailed sketches of her father, Joaquin Nin, her literary friends Truman Capote and Henry Miller, her patients, her acquaintances.  Every trivial conversation contains the suspense of a Greek drama; every mundane incident a heart-racing rising action, exhilarating climax and satisfying resolution as if her life had an underlying structure as comprehensible as a novel.  If we observe the world as closely, we— too— can gather a wealth of material:

“It is perfectly possible to strip yourself of your preoccupations, to refuse to allow yourself to go about wrapped in a cloak of oblivion day and night, although it is more difficult than one might think to learn to turn one’s attention outward again after years of immersion in one’s own problems…set yourself a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye.’  For half an hour each day transport yourself back to the state of wide-eyed interest that was yours at age of five.  Even though you feel a little self-conscious about doing something so deliberately that was once as unnoticed as breathing, you will still find that you are able to gather stores of new material in a short time.”

If we want to be writers, we must be “strangers in our streets” and look at the world around us as if for the first time.  But how, exactly, do we truly see something, especially something we’ve seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times?  We don’t have to seek new landscapes, only fresh eyes.  Like scientists who discard all their preconceptions and simply record what they see, we should remain open, receptive and attentively observe our surroundings.  If we see a spring sky, what color is it?  a cloud-dotted azure?  an innocent robin’s egg blue?  If we find ourselves in a winter landscape, is the air “chilly” or “frigid”?  Are the trees “bare” or “frost-bitten”?  What is the overall atmosphere and mood?  Be as specific as possible.  Or as Brande writes,

“You know how vividly you see a strange town or a strange country when you first enter it.  The huge red buses of London, on the wrong side of the road to every American that ever saw them— soon they are as easy to dodge and ignore as the green buses of New York, and as little wonderful as the drugstore window that you pass on your way to work each day.  The drugstore window, though, the streetcar that carries you to work, the crowded subway can look as strange as Xanadu if you refuse to take them for granted.  As you get into your streetcar or walk along a street, tell yourself that for fifteen minutes you will notice and tell yourself about every single thing that your eyes rest on.  The streetcar: what color is it outside? (Not just green or red, here, but sage or olive green, scarlet or maroon.)  Where is the entrance?  Has it a conductor and motorman, or a motorman-conductor in one?  What colors inside, the walls, the floor, the seats, the advertising posters?  How do the seats face?  Who is sitting opposite you?  How are your neighbors dressed, how do they stand or sit, what are they reading, or are they sound asleep?  What sounds are you hearing, which smells are reaching you, how does the strap feel under your hand, or the stuff of the coat the brushes past you?  After a few moments you can drop your intense awareness, but plan to resume it again when the scene changes.

One way to sharpen our artist’s eye is to make time for adventure and novelty.  Brande suggests we shake off the blinders of custom and habit and, every so often, do something new: eat pancakes for dinner, take a different route to work, go to a matinee on a Tuesday at noon.

We don’t have to venture to a lush jungle in Indonesia to see things anew.  We can practice looking at things in a fresh way from the comfort of our living rooms.  Stand on the coffee table.  Somersault across the floor.  Do a headstand.  Anything to make the familiar objects of our lives as unfamiliar as possible:

It will be worth your while to walk on strange streets, to visit exhibitions, to hunt up a movie in a strange part of town in order to give yourself the experience of fresh seeing once or twice a week.  But any moment of your life can be used, and the room that you spend most of your waking hours in is as good, or better, to practice responsiveness on as a new street.  Try to see your home, your family, your friends, your school or office, with the same eyes that you use away from your own daily route.  There are voices you have heard so often that you forget they have a timbre of their own…the chances are that you hardly realize that your best friend has a tendency to use some words so frequently that if you were to write a sentence involving those words anyone who knew him would realize whom you were imitating.”

Dorothea Brande is a kick-in-the-pants coach who will inspire you to get to your writing table.  For more tips and tricks from Becoming a Writer, read Brande on how to follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical. 

Dorothea Brande’s 15 Minute Rule

I don’t feel like writing today.  Most anything seems more appealing than putting pen to page.  Like most writers, I began this day with an earnest, eager desire to put my thoughts into words and set a specific time to work.  But like most writers, the moment the clock struck the appointed time, I suddenly had countless pressing obligations I had to attend to: there were coats to hang, shirts to fold, urgent emails I needed to respond to (never mind that these “urgent” emails had been unimportant mere moments before).

“I’ll just make myself some chamomile tea before settling down to work,” I tell myself.  As I wait for the kettle to whistle, I notice a pile of dishes teetering as precariously as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  “Why don’t I just wash a few plates?” I say.  After scrapping off last night’s lasagna from the dirty dishes, I notice the filthy state of the sink.  And what do I do?  I grab a sponge and start scrubbing.  “Look at these grimy footprints all over the hardwood floors!  I’ll just give them a quick polish.  Fast forward three hours: my kitchen is spotless and I’ve gotten absolutely no writing done.

dorothea-brande

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but no matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll always resist the blank page.  We’ll always think of an excuse not to write: because we’re tired or because we’re upset after fighting with our boyfriend or because it’s rainy outside or because our hamster died.  Perhaps we have bills to pay or groceries to buy.  Or maybe we just aren’t in the mood.

But despite popular mythology, we don’t need to be in the “mood” to write.  As phenomenally productive writer Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.”  In his eleven commandments, Henry Miller created a no non-sense credo for himself, “If you can’t create, you can work.”  Dorothea Brande, author of Becoming a Writer, one of the most timeless books on the craft, offers similarly simple advice: if you want to write, write!  Don’t wait for the mythical lightning bolt or the mysterious, mystical whisperings of the muse.

Much like Julia Cameron, who unblocked millions of artists with her life-changing course The Artist’s Way, Brande has a doable, down-to-earth approach to the writer’s life.  You don’t need the most gorgeous ink pen or most beautiful leather-bound notebook.  Nor do you need a stylish desk or chic artist’s studio, the serene seclusion of a “room of your own”— you can write in crowded subways, noisy cafes, kitchens of rambunctious five-year-olds.  You don’t need yawning vistas of time: stretches of weeks over summer vacations, a year-long sabbatical.  Becoming a writer, Brande suggests, is as simple as surveying your schedule and setting aside a mere non-negotiable fifteen minutes for yourself:

“After you have dressed, sit down for a moment by yourself and go over the day before you.  Usually you can tell accurately enough what its demands will be; roughly, at least, you can sketch out for yourself enough of your program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself.  It need not be a very long times; fifteen minutes will do nicely, and there is almost no wage slave so driven that he cannot snatch a quarter of an hour from a busy day if he is earnest about it.”

If you want to write, Brande asserts, you have to hold yourself accountable.  Being a writer requires a deep commitment to yourself.  If, for example, you promise to rise at dawn so you can write for an hour uninterrupted, you have to wake up at dawn: no excuses.  As Brande writes with equal parts no bullshit and tough no-non-sense:

“You have decided to write at four o’ clock, and at four o’ clock write you must!  No excuses can be given…you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it.”

The beauty of Brande’s fifteen minute exercise is we can write anything at all: a character sketch, a bit of dialogue, a review of the last book we read, an opinion on the latest news story, a description of the view outside our window.  The point isn’t to contribute a masterpiece to English letters— it’s simply to get something, anything down on paper.  Unlike a spelling test in school, our efforts won’t be graded— they’ll only be marked for completion.  All that matters is we do it.  Like all great writing teachers, Brande gives us permission:

“…write anything at all.  Write sense or non-sense, limericks or blank verse; write what you think of your employer or your secretary or your teacher; write a story synopsis or a fragment of dialogue, or the description of someone you recently noticed.  However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write.”

Why does Brande suggest we begin with a mere fifteen minutes?  Isn’t a quarter of an hour not enough time to get any real writing done?  For Brande, fifteen minutes is perfect for the exact reason that it isn’t too long.  Sitting at a desk for a whole hour can be daunting, even for the most experienced writers.  But fifteen minutes is doable.  Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t stay focused for fifteen minutes.  Because the goal is so easily achievable, we trick ourselves into getting to the page.  Most days when the timer goes off, we’ll be so absorbed in our work that we’ll end up writing for much longer.

Following Brande’s fifteen minute rule will not only teach us discipline and diligence, it will train us to blast through our blocks and overcome resistance.  The result?  We’ll build a regular writing habit and finally “become writers” as Brande’s title promises.

Becoming a Writer is an invaluable addition to any writer’s library.  The 1934 classic won’t teach you the technical aspects of how to create compelling characters or construct plots, but it will train you to sharpen your powers of observation, follow a strict writing schedule, read like a writer, and separate the creative stage of the writing process from the critical.  Want more nourishment for the writer’s soul?  Revisit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments and Brenda Ueland on the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity.  If you want more practical advice on the nuts and bolts of the craft, study Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of motif, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Ernest Hemingway on the appeal of telling almost the whole story.

3 Reasons You Should Keep a Diary

For me, a diary is many things: a therapist’s coach, a playground, a laboratory.  It’s— to borrow Virginia Woolf’s lovely phrase— a “blank-faced confidante,” a caring friend who will always listen and never judge.  Though the practice seemed pointless at first (after all, could there be anything more self-indulgent than documenting the mundane matters of your day?  who cares?), I’ve been keeping a diary now for nearly ten years.  Nothing has been more important to my formation as a person or as a writer.

Here are three reasons why I believe you— too— should keep a journal:

1. you’ll free yourself of your inner censor’s picky perfectionism

the diary of anais nin

For Anais Nin, who began her legendary diary at the age of eleven and devoted herself to the practice for over half a century until her death, a diary was a place to explore and experiment.  Unlike in “real” writing where we’re mercilessly tortured by self-criticism and silenced by self-doubt, in a diary, we can play like a carefree child in a sandbox.  Usually, writing is fraught with anxiety (“Was our point clear?”  “Was our topic interesting/relevant?”  Did we sound silly/stupid?”) but in the private pages of our diary, we don’t have to perform— we are free to frisk and frolic.  There’s no need to obsessively-compulsively write and rewrite sentences, to endlessly tweak and alter and adjust.  We don’t have to write anything original or sharp-witted— only what genuinely intrigues/interests us.  Nor do our ideas have to march to a neat and orderly logic: topic sentence, example, evidence.  They can wander down windy roads, get lost down dead-ends.

Too often, we bring our censor to the page in the early stages of the writing process: when we’re brainstorming, when we’re just playing with ideas.  The result?  We get blocked. “What does that have to do with anything?” our censor will snap when we start to follow an interesting— if unrelated— thought, “Stay on track…no detours!”  But just as we stumble upon Maine’s best blueberry pie when we decide to stop at a diner off the main road, we often discover our best ideas when we bypass the highway and take the scenic route.

In an illuminating 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, the ever-elegant Nin argued her diary helped her amass a wealth of material and write without restriction:

“… in the diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.  Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.”

2. you might find diamonds in dust

virginia

Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep a diary comes from dedicated diarist, Virginia Woolf.  Though it’s hard to imagine that a genius like Woolf could doubt her own talent, for the titan of modernism behind such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, writing was often torment: she loathed what she wrote, she tossed entire drafts in the trash, she exasperatedly scratched sentences out.  There were days when she felt everything she wrote was obvious and trite, when she cruelly compared herself (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!” she once wrote.) 

The fact is writing can be hell.  Some days we dread sitting at our keyboards.  We’d rather do almost anything— get a root canal, read dusty decades-old magazines in a three hour DMV line, visit our insufferable in-laws— than put one word against another.  On days like this, putting pen to paper feels as torturous as having dinner with your right-wing, Trump-supporting uncle.  Every word, every sentence is a struggle.  We freeze up rather than let words flow.  Because we long to write The Great American Novel— something history-making and monumental— we feel blocked.  Should we employ more evocative description?  Should we replace lethargic forms of “to be” with vigorous action words?  Is it okay to simply say “went” or should we use something more specific like “hurried” or “skipped” or “jumped”?

For Woolf, keeping a diary was a potent remedy for such crippling writer’s block.  In a April 20, 1919 entry from her own blank-faced confidante, she wrote the purpose of a diary was artistic— not historical.  More than just a mundane record of her day-to-day, the diary was a safe space where she could express what first came into her mind without fear of judgement or ridicule:

“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice.  It loosens the ligaments…What sort of diary should I like mine to be?  Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.  I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” 

In a diary, we can write with an ease and effortlessness that often eludes us.  Ironically, our writing is worlds better when we stop trying so hard.  Think of a first date.  When we try to “make an impression” and dazzle our date with impressive accomplishments, riveting stories, and hilarious jokes, we repel rather than attract our potential paramour.  But when we relax, sip our wine, and be ourselves, our chances of a second date increase tenfold.

The same is true in writing.  If we write out of ego— to impress with our scholarly, sophisticated vocabulary or to astonish with our ability to quote Dante in the original Italian or to gain literary celebrity or to win awards— we’ll a) find it impossible to write at all or b) only write god awful dross.  But if we dash things off instead of compose, if we simply surrender and let go, we can write— and write well.

Will our diary be a masterpiece of prose?  Most likely not, much of it will be worthless junk, but— in Woolf’s charming words— other times we might uncover “diamonds in dust”:

“I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.  Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.”

3.  you’ll create yourself

susan sontag

Lastly, we should keep a diary because it’s a place where we can create ourselves.  As essayist, political activist, and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote in her 1957 journal:

“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate.  In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.  The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.  It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent.  Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”

Writing— above all— is an act of making meaning.  Sadly, most of us don’t try to make our lives mean: we simply go to work, pay bills, go grocery shopping.  Rather than form a narrative that follows a conflict’s escalation from exposition to climax to resolution, we let our days pass without scrutiny.  A breakup of a long term relationship, a heated argument with our headstrong sister, an impossible roommate are a series of unrelated episodes.  Because we don’t examine our lives, we can’t identify the unifying theme, the recurring patterns.  We have no sense of how chapters contribute to the whole novel.

But when we take the time to reflect in a diary, we better understand our lives and ourselves.  By translating our thoughts into words, we make things comprehensible.  Our diary is the narrative of our lives, a novel we can analyze and dissect and pour over. 

Have we written the same tear-filled story about our husband day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year?  Maybe it’s time to get a divorce.

How many pages have we spent wondering why our on-again/off-again “boyfriend” hasn’t called?  Maybe— our diary suggests ever so gently— he’s not our boyfriend at all.  Maybe we should drop his ass because he treats us like a booty call. 

How many times have we written that we missed our regular ritual of Sunday brunch with the girlsMaybe it’s time to pick up the phone.

Are we always enviously admiring the accomplishments of our ambitious friends who volunteer for good causes and get their Master’s?  Maybe we should sign up to read to children at our local library or research grad schools.

Are we constantly complaining about how we despise our dull, dead-end jobs?  Maybe it’s time to change careers.

Or does page after page brim with a desire to explore and adventure?  Perhaps we should road trip across the country or trek to Timbuktu or abandon civilized society and live in a loincloth.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear,” Joan Didion once wrote.  Writing makes us aware of who we are and what we want.  Keeping a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our stories, we can revise our plots.