Know Thyself

Recently, a person in my writing group lent me Dorothea Brande’s classic guidebook, Becoming a Writer. First published in 1934, this book is packed with solid advice for anyone wishing to become a novelist. One insightful gem is the idea that, if you want to write great stories dealing with life’s “big ideas”, you must first understand your own philosophical convictions.

For example, in her chapter entitled “The Source of Originality,” Brande writes: “If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.”

She elaborates on this idea further by suggesting that writers ask themselves a series of questions. Brande contends that an “author’s conviction underlies all imaginative representation…Since this is so, it behooves you to know what you do believe of most of the major problems which you are going to use in your writing….Here are a few questions for self-examination which may suggest others to you. It is by no means an exhaustive questionnaire, but by following down the other inquiries which occur to you as you consider these, you can come by a very fair idea of your working philosophy.

Do you believe in a God? Under what aspect? (Hardy’s ‘President of the Immortals’ or Wells’ ‘emerging God?’)

Do you believe in free will or are you a determinist? (Although the artist-determinist is such a walking paradox that imagination staggers at the notion.)

Do you like men? Women? Children?

What do you think of marriage?

Do you consider romantic love a delusion and a snare?

Do you think the comment “It will all be the same in a hundred years” is profound, shallow, true or false?

What is the greatest happiness you can imagine? The greatest disaster?”

Brande then goes on to note, “If you find you are balking at definite answers to the great questions, then you are not ready to write fiction which involves major issues. You must find subjects on which you are capable of making up your mind, to serve as the groundwork of your writing. The best books emerge from the strongest convictions—and for confirmation see any bookshelf.”

In school, we are taught to “write about what we know,” and this same principle applies not only to the surface details of a story, but also to the philosophical convictions which drive our characters and plots. For it is the honest portrayal of these convictions that often makes a story both meaningful and memorable.

About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. I recently gave this book to a nephew for high school graduation. He’s got an interest and a talent for writing and I couldn’t think of a better gift.