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Filling with Words – Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer

Do you have enough silence in your life? This was something that came…

Do you have enough silence in your life?

This was something that came up for me while reading Dorothea Brande’s lovely book, Becoming a Writer, which I rambled a bit about in last week’s August reading round-up. I don’t tend to do written reviews of individual books (I leave my incoherence for the videos), but a couple of her concepts stuck with me, particularly the idea that we need periods of stillness in order to fill ourselves with words.

I picked up Becoming a Writer because Ray Bradbury mentions it as being an inspiration in Zen and the Art of Writing (and in case you’ve missed it, I really, really love that book). Becoming a Writer was first published in 1934, so it’s full of wonderful advice such as investing in a portable typewriter as well as your home one, and the physical demands of sitting to type for long periods of time (which, fair enough. My back gets tired, too). There’s also a beautiful passage about retiring to a comfortable chair and sitting in stillness while preparing to write, which is probably very good advice, but all I could picture were slightly dusty boarding house sitting rooms, and our heroic writer reclining in state while waiting for the muse to make her appearance.

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So, yes. It’s dated. But it is a very lovely book. It doesn’t rank up there with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird for sheer relatability and reassurance, or Bradbury’s Zen for passion and enthusiasm, but it’s encouraging and practical. She believes very firmly that writing is a skill that can be learned, and that anyone with the willingness to put the work in can become a decent writer (I applaud this very much. Bum in seat, in modern terms). Her advice on cultivating a writing practise is timeless, in my mind (make a time to write every day, and when that time comes, go write. Even if it’s just for ten minutes), and her thoughts on the dual aspects of the writer’s personality are wonderfully put (artistic soul who does the magic, and the practical one who shapes it and takes criticism).

There’s plenty to like about both the book and her approach, but the bit that stuck with me the most, the one that made me stop and really think about things, is her idea of filling the well of our words. It’s beautiful. And it’s relevant.

We’re constantly surrounded by distractions. This isn’t a new concept – we’re continually reminded of this by social media posts and articles that tell us to stop reading social media posts and articles and go switch off for a bit. And I’m as guilty of it as anyone, especially since discovering podcasts. It turns out doing the dishes or making dinner is much more interesting when listening to things like why chickens are better lifeguards than humans and why going clubbing with millipedes is actually quite cool.

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The only time I am truly silent is when I’m running or walking, and I think that may be why I connected so much to Ms Brande’s concept here – because that’s also when I always find plots untangle and scenes reveal themselves. And I’m not even working on them, necessarily. They just float to the surface, because there’s nothing distracting me from seeing them.

Her idea is that we continually fill ourselves with words. From books and conversations and newspapers, and now from social media, our phones, TV, radio, podcasts, everything. And while we’re pouring words in from outside – words we need to survive, as she puts it – our own words are stilled, lost beneath the influx. And while we need those external words, to learn and to live, we also need to take time to shut them out.

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If we want our own words to overflow, we need to give them the opportunity to do just that. Because, confronted by silence, with no words coming from outside, ours will fill the gap. They’re just waiting to be given the chance.

Which I find quite beautiful.

Of course, one of her examples was a woman who could only come up with stories when she scrubbed the floors, and I’m not recommending that to anyone. But maybe a little silence could help us all, however you find it. In an art gallery or museum, maybe, where you can look without reading. Walking. Even cleaning, just without the music or podcasts or audiobooks.

It’s certainly worth trying.

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What do you think, lovely people? Can you see where you might be able to fit some silence into your life? Do you do it already? Let me know below!

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  1. Lynda Dietz says:

    I have silence, but I don’t have quiet very often. The silence comes when I’m sitting at my desk, working, but it’s not the same as the kind of quiet that happens when I’m walking in the woods or looking at stars.

    And I may need to listen to some of those podcasts you’ve found . . . clubbing with millipedes sounds intriguing.

    1. kimwatt says:

      I love that distinction. Yes, an absence of sound is definitely not the same as the quietness to just be – and now I need to go look at some stars. I haven’t done that for far too long.

      No Such Thing As A Fish is an excellent podcast – do you now the UK panel show QI? The podcast’s done by the researchers who come up with all the weird and wonderful facts for QI, and they’re brilliantly funny.

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