The Writer’s Recreation – Dorothea Brande

After my critical review of Becoming a Writer, the self-help book that isn’t very helpful, I wanted to share this short chapter. It’s the least annoying part of the book where Brande discusses the importance of taking a break from writing to renew your store of inspiration. Take it away, Dorothea…

Authors are more given than any other tribe to the taking of busmen’s holidays. In their off-hours they can usually be found reading in a corner, or, if thwarted in that, with other writers, talking shop. A certain amount of shoptalk is valuable; too much of it is a drain. And too much reading is very bad indeed.

Busmen’s Holidays

All of us, whether we follow writing as a career or not, are so habituated to words that we cannot escape them. If we are left alone long enough and forbidden to read, we will very soon be talking to ourselves – “subvocally” as the behaviourists say. This is the easiest thing in the world to prove: starve yourself for a few hours in a wordless void. Stay alone, and resist the temptation to take up any book, paper, or scrap of printed matter that you can find; also flee the temptation to telephone someone when the strain begins to make itself felt – for you will almost surely scheme internally to be reading or talking within a few minutes. In a very short while you will find that you are using words at a tremendous rate: planning to tell an acquaintance just what you think of him, examining your conscience and giving yourself advice, trying to recapture the words of a song, turning over the plot of a story; in fact, words have rushed in to fill the wordless vacuum.

Prisoners who never wrote a word in the days of their freedom will write on any paper they can lay hands on. Innumerable books have been begun by patients lying on hospital beds, sentenced to silence and refused reading; the last one to be reported was, I think, Margaret Ayer Barnes’ Years of Grace, and long ago I remember reading that William Allen White’s A Certain Rich Man came to him when he was “tossing pebbles into the sea” on an enforced vacation. A two-year-old will tell himself stories, and a farmer will talk to a cow. Once we have learned to use words we must be forever using them.

Wordless Recreation

The conclusion should be plain. If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theatre, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.

One very well-known writer of my acquaintance sits for two hours a day on a park bench. He says that for years he used to lie on the grass of his back garden and stare at the sky, but some member of the family, seeing him so conveniently alone and aimless, always seized the occasion to come out and sit beside him for a nice talk. Sooner or later, he himself would begin to talk about the work he had in mind, and, to his astonishment, he discovered that the urgent desire to write the story disappeared as soon as he had got it thoroughly talked out. Now, with a purposeful air and in mysterious silence, he disappears daily, and can be found every afternoon (but fortunately seldom is) with his hands in his pockets staring at the pigeons in the park.

Another writer, almost tone-deaf, says that she can finish any story she starts if she can find a hall where a long symphony is being played. The lights, the music, her immobility, bring on a sort of artistic coma, and she emerges in a sleepwalking state which lasts till she reaches the typewriter.

Find Your Own Stimulus

Only experiment will show you what your own best recreation is; but books, the theatre, and talking pictures should be very rarely indulged in when you have any piece of writing to finish. The better the book or the play is the more likely it is, not only to distract you, but actually to alter your mood, so that you return to your own writing with your attitude changed.

A Variety of Time-Fillers

Most established authors have some way of silent recreation. One found that horseback riding was the best relaxation for him; another, a woman, confessed that whenever she came to a difficult spot in a novel she was writing, she got up and played endless games of solitaire. (I believe it was Mrs Norris, and I think she went so far as to say that she was not always certain to see an ace when she turned it up.)

Another woman novelist found, during the war years, that she spun stories as fast as she knitted, and turned herself into a Penelope of the knitting needle, ravelling a square of scarlet wool and starting on it again whenever she had a story “simmering.” Fishing served a writer of detective stories, and another admits that he whittles aimlessly for hours. Still another said that she embroidered initials on everything she could lay her hands on.

Only an impassioned author could call some of these occupations by any name so glamorous as “recreation”; but it is to be noticed that successful writers, when talking about themselves as writers, say little about curling up in a corner with a good book. Much as they may love reading (and all authors would rather read than eat), they had all learned from long experience that it is the wordless occupation which sets their own minds busily at work.

from Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (read the review here)

These days, you’d have to add the internet, social media, Netflix, TV, and gaming to the long list of things to avoid if you want to empty your mind of words…