Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, teaches graduate fiction at Florida State University his version of literary boot camp. In From Where You Dream, Butler reimagines the process of writing as emotional rather than intellectual, and tells writers how to achieve the dreamspace necessary for composing honest, inspired fiction. Proposing that fiction is the exploration of the human condition with yearning as its compass, Butler reinterprets the traditional tools of the craft using the dynamics of desire. Offering a direct view into the mind and craft of a literary master, From Where You Dream is an invaluable tool for the novice and experienced writer alike.
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"To be an artist means never to avert your eyes."
— Akira Kurosawa
I need to make this clear first off: no matter where you are in your writing career, if you aspire to create literature, if you aspire to be an artist in the medium of language, if you aspire to create narratives of whatever length that arrive at the condition of art — there are fundamental truths about the artistic process to which you must attend.
In the nearly two decades I've been teaching this subject, I have read many thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers, and virtually all of them — virtually all of them — fail to show an intuitive command of the essentials of the process of fictional art. Because of the creative writing pedagogy in this country, and because of the nature of this art form, and because of the medium you work with, and because of the rigors of artistic vision, and because of youth, and because no one has ever told you these things clearly, the great likelihood is that all of the fiction you've written is mortally flawed in terms of the essentials of process.
This, I think, is why my students have come to call this boot camp: because — and I will do this in as friendly and gentle and encouraging a way as I possibly can — what I have to say to you will indict virtually everything you've written.
It's not going to be an easy message to hear. But I'm going to tell you right up front: before I wrote my first published novel, The Alleys of Eden, I wrote literally a million words of absolute dreck. Five god-awful novels, forty dreadful short stories, and a dozen truly terrible full-length plays. I made all those fatal errors of process I would bet my mortgage you're making now. I want to help you get around that. But you've got to open up and listen to me about this. If you're not prepared to do that, if you're not prepared to open your sensibilities — and, incidentally, your minds — to what I'm going to tell you and to the implications for the work you have done and will do, then it is best that you and I part ways now. There are some folks in this room who will attest to the fact that it's going to be tough, it's going to be nerve-racking, it's going to unsettle you. But I think they will also attest that the rewards are worth it.
You must, to be in here, have the highest aspirations for yourselves as writers — the desire to create works of fiction that will endure, that reflect and articulate the deepest truth about the human condition. If that is your aspiration, then this is where you belong. I will not blow you off. I will take your aspirations seriously, and I will demand that you take them seriously.
I always begin with something the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa once said. He said, "To be an artist means never to avert your eyes." To be an artist means never to avert your eyes — this is the absolute essential truth here. You're going to be, and probably always have been, led to avert your eyes. But turning from that path is what it means to be an artist. You need courage, and that's something I can't teach you. I can teach you that you've got to have it.
What does an artist do?
As an artist, like everyone else on this planet, you encounter the world out there primarily in your bodies, moment to moment through your senses. Everything else derives from that. You are creatures of your senses. All that follows — all the stuff of the mind, all the analysis, all the rationalization, all the abstracting and interpreting — follows upon that point of contact, in the moment, through your senses.
If you live in the moment, through your senses, your first impression certainly will be that at the heart of things is chaos. God knows we had a very clear example of that in September of 2001. You can be sitting on the ninetieth floor of the World Trade Center on a beautiful late summer morning, smelling your Starbucks coffee, glad they brewed Sumatra today, and someone with visions of seventy-two virgins waiting for him in heaven flies a United Airlines jet through your window. That is a paradigm of the human condition.
Artists are intensely aware of the chaos implied by the moment-to-moment sensual experience of human beings on this planet. But they also, paradoxically, have an intuition that behind the chaos there is meaning; behind the flux of moment-to-moment experience there is a deep and abiding order.
The artist shares her intuition of the world's order with the philosophers, the theologians, the scientists, the psychoanalysts — there are lots of people who believe there is order in the universe — but those others embrace the understanding and expression of that order through abstractions, through ideas, through analytical thought. The artist is deeply uncomfortable with those modes of understanding and expression. The theologians have their dogma and the philosophers their theories and the scientists their scientific principles and the psychoanalysts their Jungian or Freudian insights — but to those modes of expression and understanding the artist says, "That doesn't make sense to me. Those are not the terms in which I intuit the world." The artist cannot understand or access her vision of the world in any of those ways. The artist is comfortable only with going back to the way in which the chaos is first encountered — that is, moment to moment through the senses. Then, selecting from that sensual moment-to-moment experience, picking out bits and pieces of it, reshaping it, she recombines it into an object that a reader in turn encounters as if it were experience itself: a record of moment-to-moment sensual experience, an encounter as direct as those we have with life itself. Only in this way, by shaping and ordering experience into an art object, is the artist able to express her deep intuition of order.
There's an interesting precedent for this idea — and what I'm about to observe has no intended religious message. A very influential person in Western and world culture taught almost exclusively in one way: only by parable, by telling stories. "Without a parable he spake not unto them." He asked questions similar to the ones I just suggested artists ask: What is the abiding universal human condition? What is this all about here on planet Earth? And his answer was, There was a guy who owned a vineyard and he had a son ... and so forth. He told stories. That's what was clearly recorded in the books written closest to the time in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. Jesus said, emphatically, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." He did not say, "He that hath a brain to think, let him think." It's through the ear. By means of a story.
The great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis said, "Man, you don't play what you know, you play what you hear." Davis had very strong political ideas — but he was an artist; he knew that you don't make music from ideas.
Please get out of the habit of saying that you've got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.
Does this make sense? Do you understand what I'm saying? If you want to think your way into your fiction, if you think you can analyze your way into a work of art, we're going to be totally at odds philosophically about what art is and where it comes from. But if you have this aspiration and an open sensibility, and if what I'm saying makes sense, then you have to tell your mind to back the hell off. It's another place in yourself entirely where you must look to create a work of art. And I'll wager that virtually everything you've written so far has come from your head.
You know, it's easy to get caught up in the ambition of being a writer. It's easy to get caught up in loving literature and wishing to be the person on the dust jacket. This ambition, as innocent-seeming as it is, can very easily muscle out your deeper, more delicate, more difficult ambitions. It can muscle them out in favor of: I want to get published, I want to be famous, I want to win a prize. Or even in the terms: I want to be an artist. I said earlier, "If you aspire to create art." Please understand that's different from "I want to be a great artist." And even "I want to create art" is a bit of a dangerous ambition. What I want to nurture in you is the impulse: "I'm ravished by sensual experience. I yearn to take life in. My God! I've got this sense that the world has meaning. Things roil around in my dream space, and I've got to figure out how to make art objects of them." That's really the best ambition, to be hungry for sensual experience in your life. Ravenous. Artists are not intellectuals. We are sensualists. The objects we create are sensual objects, and the way you'll know that you're writing from your head is that you'll look at your story and find it full of abstraction and generalization and summary and analysis and interpretation. These modes of discourse will be prevalent in works that are written from the head. Even if you can by force of will insert some nicely observed sense details into the work, you'll find the work moving toward analysis and description and generalization and abstraction when, in fact, in the work of art the most important moments are the most sensual of all, the most in the moment.
Mies van der Rohe said that God is in the details. Let's substitute: the human condition resides in the details, the sense details.
The primary point of contact for the reader is going to be an emotional one, because emotions reside in the senses. What we do with emotions after that, to protect ourselves in the world, is a different thing; but emotions are experienced in the senses and therefore are best expressed in fiction through the senses.
Emotions are also basically experienced, and therefore expressed in fiction, in five ways. First, we have a sensual reaction inside our body — temperature, heartbeat, muscle reaction, neural change.
Second, there is a sensual response that sends signals outside of our body — posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, and so forth.
Third, we have, as an experience of emotion, flashes of the past. Moments of reference in our past come back to us in our consciousness, not as ideas or analyses about the past, but as little vivid bursts of waking dream; they come back as images, sense impressions.
The fourth way we experience emotion and can therefore express it in fiction is that there are flashes of the future, similar to flashes of the past, but of something that has not yet happened or that may happen, something we desire or fear or otherwise anticipate. Those also come to us as images, like bursts of waking dreams.
And finally — this is important for the fiction writer — we experience what I would call sensual selectivity. At any given moment we, and therefore our characters, are surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sensual cues. But in that moment only a very small number of those sensual cues will impinge on our consciousness. Now, what makes that selection for us? Well, our emotions do.
Henry James said that "landscape is character," and this could well be what he meant. Our personalities, our emotions, are expressed in response to the sensual cues around us. We look at the landscape and what we see out there is our deepest emotional inner selves. This is at the heart of a work of art.
Why is this sensual center of our art so hard for us to get at? Miles Davis, if he were a writer, probably would struggle with the same problems I struggled with and that you're probably struggling with now. It's easy for him to say "you don't play what you know, you play what you hear," because his medium is entirely sensual, inescapably so. The sound that comes out of his horn is irreducibly sensual. Every other art form is irreducibly sensual. Dancers move, composers work with sound, painters with color; even abstract art isn't abstract at all — it's color and form. You stand in front of a Barnett Newman painting, and whatever may have been in his brain about artistic theory, what confronts you is a massive experience of color and a delicate experience of texture.
But you folks have it really difficult. No one in my position in any of the other arts has to say the things I say. Why? Because your medium is language, and language is not innately sensual. Language, in fact, is much more often used in non-sensual ways. Look at the paradox of this evening. I am inveighing against abstraction, generalization, and summary and analysis and interpretation in what terms? Abstract, general, analytical, and interpretive. Am I not? Well, that's the nature of human beings. There are things we have to express in this way.
Now, I've heard no gasps of recognition yet, but let me assume that some of you are thinking, Of course, this makes sense. Oh boy oh boy! If so, you and I are still going to have to be patient, because — you know what? — your understanding is still here in your head, and it's going to take a while to make all this part of your process.
If I had me to talk to me back when, I might not have had to write a million dreadful words. If I'd caught me at the right moment — and in the right spirit — I might have had to write only a quarter of a million — maybe not so many as that if I'd really listened. You might ask, why did he write five terrible novels? How many terrible novels can you write? The answer is that I had no idea how badly I was writing. None. And my ability to continue working through a million words was so rooted in self- deception that I might not have been able to hear this message. So those are the things you may have to sort through, too.
The special problem here is that the artistic medium of fiction writers — language — is not innately sensual. The medium is unforgiving whenever we look for it in our minds. Some visual artists do a lot of conceptualizing and still end up creating terrific works of art. They are able to do so because once they get out there in front of their canvases or their blocks of granite, they have to leave those ideas behind. The medium itself won't let them think.
Literature — language, fiction — does not as a medium force you to leave your ideas behind. And if you think it into being, if you will a story into being, by God, it's going to show.
Why is it so tough to get past that? Why does Kurosawa say that the essence of being an artist is that you can't avert your eyes? Why avert them? We still haven't quite made that connection. If the artist sees the chaos of experience and feels order behind it and creates objects to express that order, surely that is reassuring, right? Well, at some point maybe. But what do you have to do first? And why is it so hard? This is why — and this is why virtually all inexperienced writers end up in their heads instead of the unconscious: because the unconscious is scary as hell. It is hell for many of us.
If I say art doesn't come from the mind, it comes from the place where you dream, you may say, "Well, I wake up screaming in the night. I don't want to go into my dreams, thank you very much. I don't want to go into that white- hot center; I've spent my life staying out of there. That's why I'm sitting in this classroom, why I was able to draw a comb through my hair this morning. Because I haven't gone there, I don't go there. I've got lots of ways of staying out of there." And you know what? You still need those ways twenty-one or twenty-two hours a day. But this is the tough part: for those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot place — it can't be white-hot and dark at the same time, but I don't care — that paradox, live with it — whatever scared the hell out of you down there — and there's plenty — you have to go in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can't flinch, can't walk away. That's the only way to create a work of art — even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.
I fight this battle every day. Janet fights this battle every day. Every artist in the world fights this battle every day. To go to a scary place that makes some other part of you say: What are you doing? No. Just no. No. No. Your hands are poised over the keyboard, and that voice says, Look at your fingernails; they need clipping. And when the voice has got you in the bathroom: Look at the toilet; it needs cleaning. And you say, Yes! Anything, anything but to go back and face this stuff.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "From Where You Dream"
Copyright © 2005 Robert Olen Butler and Janet Burroway.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
|Part I||The Lectures|
|4||Cinema of the Mind||63|
|5||A Writer Prepares||85|
|Part II||The Workshop|
|6||Reading, Lit Crit, and the Workshop||107|
|7||The Bad Story||123|
|8||The Anecdote Exercise||141|
|9||The Written Exercise||165|
|Part III||The Stories, Analyzed|
|12||"My Summer in Vulcan"||229|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As I have an acting background--a B.A. in Theatre Arts, Performance, from U.S.F.-- I can say with great confidence that Robert Olen Butler has created a 'Method-Writing' inspired by Konstantin Stanislavsky.More of a 'Why-To', than a mere 'how-to', Mr. Butler gives specific exercises to help unlock the subconscious, and generate better writing... Stanislavsky said his Method was 'The Conscious means to the Unconscious.'.Mr. Butler will have you writing, literally, 'From Where You Dream.' I've already had great success by following his suggestions and utilizing the exercises--I am more disciplined, and creating more, and enjoying the process,too! I recommend this book very highly. When I do volunteer work at Open Mics, and in schools, I always tell the kids, and the teachers, and professors, about this book.
Despite there being one or two useful tips in the book for beginning writers (which is why I gave this book two stars instead of one) I have never been able to get over Butler's pretentious attitude. In fact, I'm amazed this book isn't much larger, considering it has to hold his overblown ego. There is much of the standard writing advice here, as well as some advice that I consider downright bad. Along with this, the reader is constantly bombarded by a subtext, which goes something like, "Thank god you found my book; now you can get rid of the trash you've written up until now and write brilliant prose the way I tell you to do it." Butler is most decidedly not of the opinion that there are as many different methods of writing as there are people. It's his way or you might as well not bother, and having read some of his writing, I'm glad the world in general doesn't agree. I was actually invited at one point to attend a writing workshop featuring Butler a couple years back, but I didn't think I could stand to listen to him for a week and declined.
Forget everything you think you know about writing. Throw all the information you¿ve obtained in school about how to write. All of that is useless. Writing doesn¿t come from your logical, thoughtful brain. It¿s really out of your control and it¿s only when you let go of that control that you can write.And, thus, my difficulty.
I had very mixed feelings about this book. Parts were very helpful, e.g., Butler¿s explanation of the dreamspace, his assertion that writers are sensualists, his insistence about the need to get out of one¿s head. What he said about the unconscious being ¿scary as hell¿ and that of course it¿s going to be hard to go there, and a constant struggle to go there despite the fear and the resistance¿all of that was very comforting, since it¿s nice to think there¿s a good reason why writing is sometimes so incredibly hard. The lecture on film technique and fiction technique was also very helpful. On the other hand, I found his genre bias extremely off-putting and he makes some comments about children as characters toward the end that were completely ridiculous and misguided. The book is a valuable read for the good parts, but I think much of Butler¿s advice should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.
i liked the suggestion he gave for planning out plots--letting characters "wander in your mind" for a while before starting to write. Otherwise, eh.
Butler comes from a very intuitive place when it comes to writing, so be warned. Enjoyed reading this one very much. My book is haloed in red flags and stickies. The pages are littered with my scratches. I plan to reread his process section more slowly a second time around.