Tag Archives: Dorothea Brande

The mysterious geometry of writing

In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande points out that it isn’t only themes and characters that emerge from the unconscious mind through writing. She says the unconscious is also ‘the home of form.’

So as well as trusting the flow of ideas if we open our mind by entering the ‘writer’s trance,’ we can also trust that the ideas will organise themselves into the shapes of books and stories.

I definitely find this in my own work.

When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I start with a sketchy plan and head off from Start in the general direction of Finish, wondering how on earth I’m going to get from one to the other, until suddenly I begin to see the shape of the whole thing in my head like a geometrical figure or a pattern of numbers.

At that point, I become fully engaged. I dash along like a mad thing, joining the dots to make the beautiful shape of the book I’m creating.

This means all my books have a sort of symmetry in the contents – the four Peony Pinkers, for example, all have 17 chapters. Why 17? I’ve no idea, only that that was the number they needed, and I knew each story was on the right track the moment I could see how it could make 17 chapters.

 

The Peony Pinkers - 4 times 17
The Peony Pinkers – four perfect 17s

Writing in the House of Dreams came out as four parts, each part having three chapters.

4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams
4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams

My brand new book, The Binding, has three parts and each one seven chapters.

The Binding - 3 parts, 7 chapters each
The Binding – 3 parts, 7 chapters each

This mysterious geometry is very marked in my own writing practice but not all books divide so obviously into a balance of parts, so it can’t be exactly the same for all writers.

Still I imagine there must come a time for everyone when something clarifies in the mind; you see the finished shape of the whole book, and the writing steps up a notch to engage with it.

If you are a writer, do you recognise what I’m talking about, or am I just weird?!

You and your writing – true love or passing passion?

It’s easy to fall in love with writing, but can you take it to the next level?

A lot of people love the idea of writing, and hold it in their heart for years as ‘a one day when I’ve got  time’ dream. And when they engage, perhaps in workshops or inspired by a book such as Writing down the Bones by Nathalie Goldberg or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, writing does not disappoint.

Because it really is exhilarating to discover that all you have to do is open the door, and ideas will come pouring through. Characters, settings, stories… it’s astonishing and wonderful what you find inside that you never even knew was there.

This is the honeymoon period. It’s bright, fun and exciting, but it doesn’t last forever. You can abandon it for a while and then start all over again, with another course, another book, loving the romance but not committing, or you can surrender to it fully, and fall properly in love.

002

Love is not easy. As Khalil Gibran says in The Prophet, ‘Even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.’

When you fall in love with writing, just as when you fall in love with another person, your centre of gravity changes. You are not the only important thing. You are willing to learn, to strive and to make sacrifices in the service of your love.

Loving your writing means making yourself the best possible writer that you can be. It means studying and practising all the skills of writing, so that you can properly honour the wonderful flow of ideas you have found.

Sometimes it might mean giving up things you really liked – ‘killing your darlings’ – if a clever image you were pleased with doesn’t sit well in the larger piece, for example, or if a descriptive passage you’ve worked really hard on has got in the way of the action.

It means curbing your annoying habits, such as using too many abstract nouns or adverbs, or peppering your text with a few favourite words. What you like is not important; you want to do what the writing needs.

Writing is a labour of love – labour and love, both. When you have setbacks, as every writer does – a book idea that doesn’t work after months and months of trying, a rejection from a publisher or agent, an e-book that’s barely sold a copy – it’s only your love for the art and craft of writing that stops you walking away and giving up completely.

I’ve had times when I’ve felt like packing it in, but writing always brings me back. It’s part of who I am now, not just a thing I do. As Khalil Gibran says, ‘think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.’

What is your relationship with writing? Would you like to commit yourself more fully? Would you like to be able to walk away?

 

 

Not everyone loves ‘morning pages’

I usually mention the idea of ‘morning pages’ in writing workshops because I think a regular writing practice is a really good thing for authors and I know a lot of writers who love doing them, either on the long term or for a few weeks to help them get unstuck when they feel blocked.

I’ve personally never used ‘morning pages’ because my daily practice is my dream journal so I was interested to read ‘Morning pages may not be the artist’s way’ by Maria C McCarthy. She and several commenters suggest that ‘morning pages’ can easily turn into an outpouring of ‘negative and angry stuff’ going over and over the same concerns day after day.

Two great writing books that recommend morning pages
Two great writing books that recommend morning pages

Her criticism of the book that made the idea popular ‘The Artist’s Way’ is that the author, Julia Cameron, offers it as the solution for every writer. My problem with that book is that I don’t think it acknowledges the earlier bestseller, ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande, which describes exactly the same practice, but that’s a separate issue.

Maria McCarthy suggests adapting the ‘morning pages’ idea by not making it totally free, but rather focusing it around a topic. Specifically, she talks about John Siddique’s idea of free writing around the ideas in Stephen R Covey’s  ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.’

I sometimes suggest using writing prompts which are self-generated for daily writing and I think this also circumvents the grinding wheels of our discontents, shifting the focus to images and themes that interest us.

Having read that for some people completely free writing may turn into a sump of misery, I may be including a health warning next time I discuss the idea of ‘morning pages’ with a group.

Related posts – ‘Daily pages vs dreams’ , ‘Do you have a daily practice’ and ‘What are the best writing prompts for daily practice?’

Have you ever tried writing ‘morning pages’? Or do you have a different daily practice you could recommend? 

Mind-magic for writers – harnessing the power of the circle

The circle is an archetype for wholeness and integration, a universal pattern in nature and the human psyche which is also a template for the stories of life and fiction. You can use the  power of the circle archetype in writing, deliberately placing it in your mind by making mandalas.

The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves ~ Black Elk

003
Ice in a circular hollow

Stories naturally make circles. The protagonist sets off, achieves or learns something in the course of the action, and returns changed. Often the work of redrafting is about refining the beginning and ending to tie everything into a satisfying whole. The crafting of a story is a process of perfecting the circle.

Dorothea Brande (‘Becoming a Writer’) says the unconscious is not only the source of our creativity, but also the home of form. This is why, when you have plot problems, new ways of fitting things together can naturally spring up in your mind as soon as you stop consciously trying to force them.

When I’m planning or redrafting a story I will often draw mandalas while I ponder.

One of my working mandalas
One of my working mandalas

‘Mandala’ comes from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘circle.’ It signifies a geometrical pattern based on a circle, and it’s used in every spiritual tradition as a focus for contemplation, meditation, protection, healing or prayer.

In its most basic form, the mandala is a simple circle, and if you’d like to try making some you can start by drawing circles. I recommend you do this free-hand, although your first attempts may look like lumpy lozenges. Keep working at it until you can do one that looks reasonably round. The process of this will anyway help attune your mind to the archetype.

When you have drawn your circle, you can incorporate other geometrical forms into it and around it. You could put a triangle inside it, crossed by another triangle to make a six-pointed star. You could put your circle inside a square, or squares inside your circle.

Choose any geometrical shapes you like, but try to achieve balance, so that the sides and segments of the circle are the same. Drawing geometric shapes also settles your mind into the beautiful reality of numbers. 

Treat the whole process like doodling, not trying to create art, but simply to play and allow your mind to idle. Keep building mandalas until you get one you really like.

Shading or colouring your mandala is a way of staying with the archetype for longer, and allowing it to work upon you. When you have finished, bring the energy of the circle with you into your writing. Bear it in mind as a template for your story, and see whether it gives you a greater sense of direction and clarity.

 What creative activities do you use as part of your writing process?

Check out these lovely prayer-flag mandalas by Toko-pa Turner http://toko-pa.com/2013/11/29/mandalas/

Create great plots by harnessing the power of myth

In our culture, because we have broken our conscious connection with myth, we tend to see our lives as separate and unique.

But every individual life follows paths and patterns which are universal. Each life story is built on a template of all human stories.

Through mythology, we can connect with the essence of our own life experience, and walk with greater consciousness the mythic pathways where we all are one.

Being aware of the archetypal dimension of experience can be particularly useful for writers. You can use mythic templates quite deliberately to help you construct stories which will have resonance with your readers.

I like to use the Hero’s Journey, the master-myth explored at length in Joseph Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’

In this story

  • the hero hears the call to adventure, which he at first refuses
  • something helps him to engage with the adventure and he sets out into the unfamiliar world
  • he meets allies and enemies
  • he’s tested
  • he has to muster all his inner resources to face his supreme ordeal
  • he finally claims his reward and takes it back to his community

This is a master myth because it isn’t limited to one area of human experience, such as becoming a mother or making the transition between middle and older age.

The Hero’s Journey explored through mythology and in the lives of women and writers – it is capable of endless applications

The Hero’s Journey describes every challenge we may have to face, however small or large; from the daily challenge of getting out of bed or learning something new to a greater challenge such as finding a new job or coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

Life continuously presents us with challenges, which we at first refuse, because we don’t want the effort and disruption of change. If we refuse, we get a nudge. We may seek the help and support of friends or strangers, books or teachers, and we may encounter unhelpful people who stand in the way.

Every time we engage with a challenge, we win a reward – new strength, new insight, new effectiveness in our world, which we can then ‘bring home’ and incorporate in our life.

You can use mythic templates in a deliberate way to construct strong stories, but simply being aware of the universal dimension in your characters’ stories will give them depth and new dimensions. As Dorothea Brande says, ninety percent of writing happens unconsciously, with us often finding things in our writing we did not consciously put there.

If you want to explore the Hero’s Journey in more depth, I’d recommend ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler, where he looks at various Hollywood blockbusters as versions of the hero myth.

August is all about archetypes here in the House of Dreams – next week, I’ll be telling you how I first encountered the archetypes in my dreams

Daily pages vs dreams

A few of my lovely dream diaries
A few of my lovely dream diaries

One of my favourite books about writing is Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a writer.’ It was published in the 1930’s and is still in print, which attests to just how good it is.

Brande says we should treat our writer self as two people, the creative, playful child and the business-like, grown-up critic. We should develop and nurture both sides of our writer self, and teach them to work in harmony.

She refers to the creative side as the unconscious, and suggests one way of opening to it through the practice of daily pages, an idea which later formed the core of another writing bestseller, ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron.

The concept of daily pages is that you write stream-of-consciousness for twenty minutes a day, ideally first thing in the morning before the concerns of the day have a chance to intrude. You keep the pen moving on the paper, even if all you can think of is along the lines of, ‘I don’t want to do this, I can’t think of anything to say, it’s a bit rainy outside…’

One effect of this is to help you let go of the idea you have to wait for inspiration before you can write anything – you can write your way in. Another is that you learn to allow unconscious products to emerge when the mind is relaxed and receptive.

Many of my writing friends have found writing daily pages really useful, but it didn’t really do anything for me. It occurred to me that the reason why was because I already wrote first thing in the morning, recording my dreams, and rather than my conscious mind idling and allowing random stuff to come up, I had been fully immersed in this amazing inner world. So, unlike daily pages, my dream diary was full of interesting incidents and images.

Check out my ‘Tips’ page for information about how to start recalling and recording your dreams