My notes on Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (English, 192 pages, Tarcher, 1981). First posted on December 12, 2012, and revised June 21, 2023.
It’s five in the morning, with coffee in hand and sleep still on my mind. What to write? How can I encapsulate the feeling of fieldwork in mere words? As anthropologists, writing is our primary task, but sometimes, words are hard to come by. This is my morning ritual, writing twenty pages. We, as academics, are wordsmiths, writers to the core. Our tools of the trade are notebooks, pens and paper, and laptops.
For most of my adult life, I have been trying to articulate my thoughts into words for others. This endeavour has taken different forms: as a University student, sometimes as a newspaper editor, as a blogger, and increasingly, as an anthropologist. We write about research, we discuss the work of others.
As dawn is an hour away, my pen is already engaged in the task of meaning-making. Anna Tsing’s advice to ‘write early and write regularly’ is a ritual I’m trying to adopt. Write at five o’clock in the morning and force yourself to put pen to paper. It’s a process where words flow freely some mornings, but on others, like today, the journey is tortuous and tedious. My words feel irrelevant and, I fear, ordinary. My prose plods anxiously with little substance offered.
One thing that often goes unsaid is that when we begin fieldwork, we are not just becoming anthropologists but also writers. Writers draft the text, employing various tools and tricks of the trade. There are rhythms to our work that make it bearable. Our prose embodies our life, our sweat, and our tears. Writing is what I learned to do in the field, and if research methods are seldom taught, writing even less so.
Our evenings are often spent making sense of the morning, or our mornings trying to combine words to make sense of experiences, rumours, practices, and suspicions. Writing forms the essence of anthropological sense-making. The hermeneutic circle of life is the task of fieldwork. We are, in fact, novelists, albeit constrained by truth, fact, and reality. Our writing tasks are no less challenging.
Last week, I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. Three pieces of advice resonated:
- Write early and write every day. Capitalise on the moments of creativity that dawn provides. Cultivate this time, use it judiciously. First thing, every day. Pay close attention to when these morning sessions yield the most, and try to replicate the conditions of those successful ones.
Cultivate a rigorous mind. Not only should you train yourself to write early, but also designate a specific time to write – a time that invites your creative side. As Brande suggests, “Set a time, say 12:30, and write for half an hour.” Regardless of the circumstances, commit to writing.
Avoid consuming other people’s work, discussing your writing, reading the newspaper, watching movies, and going to the theatre. While Brande would likely disapprove of blogs and Twitter as distractions, her point is that writers thrive on an internal dialogue—our conversation with ourselves. This dialogue can be cultivated with mundane and repetitive tasks but can be destroyed by words, read or heard.
The last piece of advice is the hardest to follow. I often find myself reaching for the radio, the internet, a newspaper, or even a cereal box every few hours. However, in the last few weeks, as I have adhered to this advice, the results on my thesis draft have been remarkable.