Monday, August 20, 2012

The Farm, the Storm, and Instagram

The best camera I have ever owned is not a camera, but my i-Phone.  Linked with the popular app Instagram, I've been able to take decent photographs, though I am a raw amateur when it comes to photography.   The following shots were taken on a small farm owned and operated  by my in-laws and they show what I love about life in rural Minnesota. This first shot is of the garden and trellis.  We visited on a day of perfect cloud-light, with big, puffy cumuli drifting past in a wash of cobalt blue.  The farm is a land of sky and wind.

This shot shows how the filters operate on Instagram, which isn't completely idiot proof.  While I would like to take the credit for having a "good eye," the truth is that this program makes the process simple.  With my first attempt, I didn't bring out the colors and angles quite right, which may have just been the sun bleaching out colors, but as the clouds passed over the sun the light came just right to allow this photo:

These cows are "belties" or Belted Galloways, the same Scottish breed I chose to feature in my novel, Little Wolves.  (If you look at these cows and think "yum!" you would be right.  The belties raised here are also hormone and antibiotic-free and you can purchase the beef directly from the farmer at:  Supporting local farmers benefits the environment and your family's health and pocketbook!)  What I know about farming and working the land comes from visiting here along with all the years my wife Melissa, an ordained Lutheran pastor, has spent serving rural congregations.  The second shot is of the barn, properly weather-beaten, dour and sturdy as an old man missing a few front teeth.  If you climb inside, up into the loft, you can touch the hand-hewn beams from a previous century, trace the marks of the awl, and know you are touching something elemental and true, life as it was, and perhaps life as it should be.

Oh, and the farm comes with wildlife, barn cats and snakes and frogs, plenty to keep the kids busy.

We loaded up on fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and sugar snap peas, a summer of abundance.  The vegetable and flower gardens provide only as a result of hours of hard work from my mother and father in-law.

These next shots show the difference between filtered and unfiltered.  While true purists will tag a photograph as "no filter" to show that it hasn't been doctored, my own take is that the filter more closely approximates what I'm seeing with naked eye.  If you look at the third shot of the rainbow, you'll see that I didn't use a filter and you'll notice the difference.  The light is washed out, right?  None of deeper blues of the sky, the storm, or even the flowers have been captured.  It's still pretty, but lacks the drama of the shots with the filter.

What a panoramic landscape the country offers.  Even driving home through this ominous cloudburst made me glad we visited the farm this weekend.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Genre and the Lit Life

The Night Circus is the best example of literary fantasy I've read in a long while, a hybrid book that stirs elements of steampunk, romance, and legends into a bubbling cauldron to make something exciting and new.  It’s like Water for Elephants, but with wizards instead of critters.

The word I thought of most often while reading it was “agon,” the classic Greek term for a contest between two forces which meet in a final climactic battle.  Morgenstern’s clever take on this story structure asks what would happen if protagonist and antagonist fell in love?  What if underneath, the forces were one and the same?

As I read through the reviews of friends on this site I find myself agreeing with some of the complaints.  Yes, the scene sets are sumptuous, with descriptions of dinners and spectacle that sometimes become wearying.  Erin Morgenstern excels in her use of imagery, all captured with a third person limited omniscience and told in present tense, which adds forward momentum to the plot.  Yes, some of the minor characters like Poppet and Widget become more interesting than the main characters.  Yes, the emotional landscape of the novel will leave some empty.

Professional reviewers also expressed mixed views.  The New York Times review was less than flattering:   Stacey D’Erasmo concludes the novel is bloodless, writing that “[m]agic without passion is pretty much a trip to Pier One: lots of shrink-wrapped candles. One wishes Morgenstern had spent less time on the special effects and more on the hauntingly unanswerable question that runs, more or less ignored, through these pages: Can children love who were never loved, only used as intellectual machines? What kind of magic reverses that spell? It’s not as pretty a spectacle, but that’s a story that grips the heart.”   Contrast her take with Ron Charles’ review in the WaPo, and you can see why readers will be divided about this book.    While he complains about “too much going on” Charles also notes how  [t]he author mingles a sense of adolescent delight with a mature chilliness that reflects the circus’s stunning black-and-white decor, and the abiding potential for violence gives the plot a subtle charge.”  His review positively glows.

Ultimately, after reflection, this is still a five star read in my mind, a book that does what good books should do:  transport a reader into another world.  It’s a book that works the oldest magic of all, enchanting the reader.  The Night Circus is a richly layered story, using Shakespeare’s Tempest and elements of Potter-esque fantasy to tap into the current zeitgeist.  How?

I liked this take from Christine Ziemba, who pointed out that “[a] quick answer lies in DNA. Human wiring brings along its appetites, and one of these happens to be a fascination with the unknown, with possibility beyond plausibility. It’s why we humans can fly now. It’s why our cities light up at night.”

In short, our dreams.  It’s fitting that the final section includes this quote from Prospero in The Tempest:  “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”  This is why you should read this book.One of my favorite quotes from the novel captures for me what makes it such a charming, original and compelling read.  I’ll conclude with it.

“Stories have changed my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad.  “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue.  Most maidens are perfectly capable or rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.  There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path.  The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are.  And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.  Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead.  Good and evil are a good deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl.  And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?  Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act?  Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with its prey.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Catch a Tiger

All great novels, a professor once announced to class, are about sex and death.  Argue that such a view is reductive, if you will, but it’s helped me to understand many difficult works in the past. The Tiger’s Wife tilts toward the death end of this polarity, with a sprinkling of interspecies sex to lighten the passage.

I read this because I am on a mythos kick lately, favoring novels that interweave legend and fairy tale into our ordinary, drab world.  Tea Obreht’s novel  offers a rich reading experience for readers like me, as it braids two myths—The Deathless Man and the Tiger’s Wife—with the story of a young female doctor’s search for what happened following her beloved grandfather’s death.

Because I am a writer and not a book critic, I will offer here two contrasting views of the novel.   Writing for, well known literary critic Laura Miller said that “the plain truth is that “The Tiger’s Wife,” while certainly entertaining and of considerable literary merit, is too rich for its own good: Obreht would have been well-advised to parcel out its constituent elements as stand-alone stories.”

By contrast, Michiko Kakutani, in a glowing review for The New York Times, praised how, ”Ms. Obreht creates an indelible sense of place, a world, like the Balkans, haunted by its past and struggling to sort out its future, its imagination shaped by stories handed down generation to generation; its people torn between ancient beliefs and the imperatives of what should be a more rational present. In doing so, Ms. Obreht has not only made a precocious debut, but she has also written a richly textured and searing novel.”

Bloated or blazing?  Who has the tiger by its tail?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  The truth probably runs a split between these two views.  I loved the myths interwoven in this novel, but found the present day rendering of the war in the Balkans to be bleached out in comparison, a pale yet subtly enchanting experience in its own right.  That it is to say that it was lovely to read, but because the author is so intent on avoiding anything smacking of melodrama, the result is that these scenes don’t evoke as much emotion as they should. That’s a small complaint in what is otherwise a wonderful novel.

My own verdict:   It’s a damn good book.  It would be easy to hate Tea Obreht since she is not yet even thirty years old and has a written a work that will live for the ages.  Don’t believe me?  Read “The Laugh” which was also featured in Best American Short Stories, 2011:

It’s an absolutely chilling story.  You will not like hyenas at the end, in case you were a fan of this animal species before reading it.  We read this story in my intro to creative writing class and I can remember after reading aloud the endnotes how surprised my students were that Tea Obreht had never been to Africa. 

“Cheater!” one student exclaimed.  Like I said, it would be easy to hate her.  If you are inclined to such feelings, go ahead.  As for me, I intend to read all of her work.  I will conclude here with my usual technique, typing out my favorite passages from the novel.   Here’s a cool scene set:

“North of Brejevina, the road was well paved, stark and new because the scrubland had not grown back up to it, the cliffs rising white and pitch and pocked with thorn trees.  A wind-flattened thunderhead stood clear of the sea, its gray insides stretching out under the shining anvil…”

Here is the grandfather, and a little of the death theme.  Please note that the grandfather is most fully present in this novel through the telling of his mythology:  “You are going to see what it is like someday, being in a room full of the dying.  They’re always waiting, and in their sleep they are waiting most of all.  When you’re around them you’re waiting too, measuring all the time their breaths, their sighs.”

Here is one of my favorite passages as the Deathless Man explains his reason for existence:   “You and I are misunderstanding one another,” he says…”The dead are celebrated.  The dead are loved.  They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

“I want to say to him, the living are celebrated too, and loved.”

Yes, it’s a melancholy work, but I love melancholy.

And here is a passage from Darisa, the bear hunter.  One other thing I really loved about this work was how fully fleshed out even minor characters were.  Darisa has just lost his epilectic sister, his charge, to a deadly seizure:  “Young boys are fascinated by animals, but for Darisa the hysterical dream of the golden labyrinth, coupled with the silent sanctuary of the trophy room, amounted to a much simpler notion:  absence, solitude, and then, at the end of it all, Death in thousands of forms, standing in that hall with frankness and clarity—Death had size and color and shape, texture and grace.  There was something concrete to it.  In that room, Death had come and gone, swept by, and left a mirage of life—it was possible, he realized to find life in Death.”

To find life in death.  Yes.  For me that gets to the core of what art should do.

Early News for Little Wolves is Good!

Two of the best friends of any beginning writer are independent bookstores and librarians, so this prepub alert about my forthcoming novel, Little Wolves (due for release in January, 2013), is good news.   In this piece, Library Journal editor Barbara Hoffert says the novel promises "smart thrills" as she recommends it.

This makes me both hopeful and excited!  See here for more:

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review of Salvage the Bones

The short of it:  the best book of 2011, a stirring evocation of race, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones should have won the Pulitzer.

The long of it:  This is a lean, lyrical and visceral work, but what I truly admired was how skillfully Ward weaves the vicious Greek myth of Medea into Esch's thoughts, her unrequited love for Manny, father of the child she carries.  Mythos--the world of spirit and legend--is one of the four pillars that Aristotle said supports great drama, and it's one often neglected in contemporary literature.  (The other three are ethos, pathos, and logos.)  I won't say much more here, but just want to log in two of my favorite quotes from the novel:

"The sun will not show.  It must be out there, over the furious hurricane beating itself against the coastline like China at the tin door of her shed when she wants to go out and Skeet will not let her.  But here on the Pit, we are caught in the hour where the sun is hidden beyond the trees but hasn't escaped over the horizon, when it is coming and going, when light comes from everywhere and nowhere, when everything is gray.

"I lie awake and cannot see anything but that baby, the baby I have formed whole in my head, a black Athena, who reaches for me.  Who gives me that name as if it is mine:  Mama.  I swallow salt.  That voice, ringing in my head, is drowned out by a train letting out one long, high blast.  And then it disappears, and there is only the sound of the wind like a snake big enough to swallow the world sliding against the mountains.  And then the wind like a train again, and the house creaks.  I curl into a ball.

"Did you hear that?"

It is Skeetah;  I can barely see him.  He is only a wash of greater darkness that moves in the dark opening of the hallway"  (Ward 219).

----2nd quote---

"I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered.  Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons.  She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.  She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land.  She left us to learn to crawl.  She left us to salvage.  Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes"  (Ward 255).

In those two quotes you see the weaving of myth, the motifs of snakes and mothers, puppies and babies, and all of it wrapped in this fierce and violent world, every bit alive.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Killer in Me?

While the AWP writing conference Is still fresh in my mind, I want to set down the highlights of the best sessions I attended, one each this week over spring break.

Among the best was a Friday session entitled “Villians, Killers, and Criminals, Oh My: Representing Evildoers in Literary Fiction.” This stellar panel, which included Reese Okyong Kwon, Matt Bell, Eugene Cross, Brian Evenson, and Lauren Groff, stepped up and delivered.

Matt Bell opened up with a short lyric essay with references ranging from Sauron to the Mecha-Hitler in Wolfenstein 3-D. One of his primary concerns was reductive portraits of evil—like turning Hitler, a complex and iconic figure of evil from the last century—into a ridiculous cartoon. Matt Bell also warned against replacing theological explanations of evil (the devil made me do it) with psychological (he had a messed up childhood). Either excuse is reductive and flat. Ultimately , for literature to have power, the antagonist must be relatable. Bell wants us to “set a place at the table for the reader and to do this the portrait of evil must present a blankness” into which the reader can project herself. Ultimately, it’s the devil inside each one of us that is truly frightening.

All the presenters spoke against explanation. Once we try to explain evil, we set up a wall, distance it from ourselves. One presenter reminded the audience of Sartre’s quote: “The line that divides good and evil runs through the human heart.”

They talked about memorable villains. Cormac McCarthy’s The Judge. Flannery O’ Connor’s The Misfit. Shakespeare’s Iago . They talked about the complexity, how the judge compels by being inexplicable. “We don’t understand,” one panelist pointed out, “but he remains interesting.”

Most intriguing to me was the idea that Shakespeare muddled his explanation for what drives Iago. I believe it was Reese Okyong Kwon who pointed out that in an early draft Shakespeare had an easy enough motive for Iago: he could have simply had his desire for Desdemona the driving force for his wickedness. Desire and jealousy. Instead, Shakespeare allows no motive for Iago. Iago just is. His cunning manipulations, his deviousness lead to Othello to destroying what he most loves. Iago is interesting precisely because we can’t explain him.

“Stupidity insists on the desire to conclude,” the panelists reminded us. In the real world, sometimes evil defies explanation and sometimes the same must be true in literature. Perhaps, when it comes to writing villains, this quote from the Misfit sums it up best: "Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life.” ― Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories

Saturday, February 4, 2012

We Paved Paradise

“What is the apocalypse but an everlasting snow day? An excuse to tear up all those college applications, which suddenly aren’t going to determine the rest of your life?” 
 Scott Westerfeld, author of The Uglies

Recently, my online young adult literature class paved over paradise. Two of the novels from the course feature dystopian societies: Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now and a contemporary classic, Lois Lowry's The Giver. To spark discussion about the texts, one of the "simple" activities I had for this week's discussion board challenged students to do the following:

Part One: Create a vision of your “perfect” community, giving it a name, a system of government, and a physical description, and accounting for how its people spend their days. What problems in society will you remove? Gossip? Lying? Intolerance? What if we sterilized all cheaters? Discuss how that community would change and grow. Post a picture from Google images or other sources to go with your writing. (It must be at least 150 words.)

Part Two: Partner up. Choose someone else’s vision of utopia from the class. Write a fictional passage where something goes wrong in this utopia. Your job is spoil paradise. After you post your fictional response, you and the rest of the class may dialogue about the results.

What I couldn't have anticipated is all the ways this might go wrong.  What I failed to recognize was an underlying cruelty in my own assignment.  I was in essence asking them to create something beautiful, ordering another to destroy it, and then asking them to dialogue about how “they felt.”  It must be part of the joyful sadism that goes with the educational process.  In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t fiction writers create characters whom we love and then send them on a journey to hell?  It sounds a little like some days in the classroom for me, online or otherwise.

Most students took it well. Since this is Minnesota in January many of the blissful utopias envisioned were set in tropical locales with sugarsand beaches and tourmaline waves. One by one the utopias fell--the peaceniks society undone by a serial killer, the vegetarians by diseased coconuts, the socialists by a deranged history teacher named "Ned." In one society that banned lying and gossip, a woman mysteriously became pregnant and gave birth to a demon baby with the power to rain down fire from the sky. The students delighted in creating a paradise, but it was the wreckage which truly inspired them to new creative heights.

Some say art springs from a desire to reclaim paradise.  In an article published in The Writer's Chronicle, author Tim Weede even proposed calling it “The Domaine Perdu,” the lost country.  He claimed each one of us carries a lost country around inside of us, a longing to return to an Eden we no longer know. Our Eden, our lost country, may have been the childhood we have left behind or it may be an actual physical place, a cabin at the lake our family once owned, a farm in the country where our grandparents hosted Thanksgiving. He said this domaine perdu embodied “the Eden myth; [which] has tremendous resonance in every culture” (66).

I remember Eden, can touch it again with my imagination.  I know that a longing for this lost land informs my historical fiction and even my next novel, set in the recent past, but if this return to paradise inspires authors, so do visions of its destruction.  We can’t help craving that apple of knowledge, are not complete as humans unless we know sin and suffering. We have to leave the garden behind if we are to grow and change.

The current dystopian trend in young adult literature has many explanations.  In a short series The New York Times recently published, “The Dark Side of Young Adult Literature,” several authors debated wide-ranging reasons for this trend, from pure “escapism” to the out-of-control aspects of our own world.  As Scott Westerfeld points out you need look no farther than a typical American high school to understand why such books are popular:  “Schools are places where teens are subject to dress codes, have few free speech rights, and are constantly surveilled, where they rise and sit at the sound of a bell. Is it any wonder that dystopian novels speak to them?”  I am not sure about you, but when I remember high school, it's not Eden that comes to mind, and it’s easy to see why this literature will remain popular for generations to come.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Living History

Nearly two years ago Dr. Elizabeth Baer, a professor of Holocaust Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, approached me about a course on the Dakota Conflict she was planning for 2012 along with Ben Leonard, the director of the Nicollet Historical Society at Traverse des Sioux. We met at Centennial Lakes and sat on a bench overlooking a tranquil pond. A summer sun glinted on the waters, incongruous to the violent events we discussed. We, the inheritors of history, ate our lunch and talked about the privations leading up to the war. How could a course on this event do justice, include voices on all sides?

It must have been one of many such conversations that Elizabeth Baer had while planning the course. January of 2012 seemed like a long ways away to me then, an abstraction. I was pleased to be included, honored to represent the role of the imagination in interpreting history. When the lunch ended, we went our separate ways and checked back in now and then over the course of next twenty-four months as the speaking engagement crept closer.

This remains a troubled, controversial history. In a recent column welcoming the state's first female American Indian legislator, columnist Lori Sturdevant draws a direct connection to the "150th anniversary of the Dakota War." She reminds us of William's Faulkner's injunction that "the past isn't over; it isn't even the past," a lesson she learned all too well when she was bombarded with angry emails from all sides after a column she published about the conflict. "Good luck" she wishes to the Minnesota Historical Society or any other groups organizing events around the sesquicentennial. (See: for the full column.)

Like Lori Sturdevant, I'll admit a little nervousness heading into my presentation. I'm happy to report that in this case she was wrong. The people did come, but there wasn't any spirit of contention, nor clamors of protest. That summer day I first spoke with Elizabeth, I could not have pictured anything like what happened when I showed up last Tuesday to speak at Alumni Hall on the Gustavus campus. Over two hundred people had gathered to listen and dialogue about the Dakota Conflict, along with another forty or so more who watched the lecture via simulcast at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

It’s a strange feeling to stand in front of such a crowd, especially for me, an author who is grateful if just one person happens to show up for a reading. The mood I picked up from the crowd was one of hunger, if that is even the right word. They were hungry for knowledge and understanding. I did what I know how to do: I told stories. I reminded them of how the word “story” lives inside the word “history,” of the importance of keeping stories alive, and of all the ways stories honor the dead. When Glen Wasicuna, a Dakota language instructor, began telling a few stories passed down to him during the question and answer session, stories he is now passing along to the next generation of youth, I felt how the audience leaned toward him.

August of this year will mark the sesquicentennial of the Dakota Conflict and this history remains what I've described as "a living wound in the time continuum." Look at the picture above, how many people came from the community of St. Peter and surrounding areas, gathered to honor the past. It’s something I’ve also seen in places like Cambridge, Minnesota and Winona where my book was a community wide read. If this history is a wound, it’s only through such dialogues that a possibility for healing might emerge.

You can find out more about the Commemorating Controversy series on the Dakota Conflict here: There are videos of past presentations and two more events remain in the series: Corinne Monjeau-Marz speaks on Tuesday, January 24, and the final evening features Gwen Westerman-Wasicuna on Thursday, January 26.

Two years of planning on the part of historian Ben Leonard and Elizabeth Baer went into the making of this series. It’s wonderful to see so much thoughtful preparation bring about such a fruitful and necessary dialogue. I urge you to check out the lecture series, either in person or online. History lives inside each one of us, as close “as our own heartbeat” as Asa learns in The Night Birds. Taking time to remember shapes our lives, our families, and our communities in ways that have a positive, lasting impact.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dreaming Your Stories into Being

Do mystical words like “white-hot center” and “yearning” and “trance” make you squirm in your chair, or light up from within?  From Where You Dream:  The Process of Writing Fiction is a collection of lectures Robert Olen Butler delivered while at Florida State University.  Janet Burroway, whose text on writing fiction is a cornerstone for workshops around the nation, edited the lectures from their original “extempore” delivery into what is a cohesive and fascinating look at how Robert Olen Butler believes writers should compose novels.
Let me say this from the beginning:  From Where You Dream is unlike any other book out there.  Yes, you’ll find advice on characters and plotting, but Butler’s emphasis is on process, and his primary concern is that most of us out there, including published novelists, are doing it wrong.  Some might quibble with what occasionally comes across as an overly-prescriptive approach, but we grow as writers when we reflect on our writing, and that includes the way we do it.  I am one of the least efficient writers on the planet, requiring many drafts and revisions before my work finds a unified form.  I read books like Robert Olen Butler’s because I am ever searching for a better way, and I am happy to report there is so much that is good and helpful in this book. As a writer who also teaches fiction at the college level, I know I will be referring to it during the semester. 
Robert Olen Butler begins by quoting Akira Kurosawa, who once said “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”  Here is the focus of his methods and his lectures:  high art.  “You must, to be in here, have the highest aspirations for yourselves as writers,” Butler says from the start, “—the desire to create works of fiction that will endure, that reflect and articulate the deepest truths about the human condition” (10).   If you believe this, you are going to love this book.  It’s true that some writers have simpler aims, to tell a good story, to create an imaginary realm where another reader might spend a few happy hours, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  “There are two of you,” Butler opines at one point, “one who wants to write and one who doesn’t.” Wherever we fall on such a continuum—high art or pulp fiction—how we confront the blank page and the scary secret thoughts of our unconscious is one of the most important questions we face.
“Art comes from the place where you dream,” (13) Butler tells us, while advising us to live and write as “sensualists” and not “intellectuals.”  Sensual.  Dream.  Ravenous.  These are not terms we ordinarily find in texts on writing and yet they lie at the core of writing and art.  The problem, according to Butler, “is that the artistic medium of fiction writers—language—is not innately sensual” (17).    We have to find a way to seek out the unconscious mind, a place brimming with livid energy, and describe this world in sensual terms.  “[F]or those two hours a day when you write you cannot flinch.  You have to go down into the deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot place…you have to go down there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away” (18).  Are you nervous yet?  The way we find this place is through the trance, the “flow state.” Robert Olen Butler wants you to find the zone.
His chapter on “yearning” is a must read for all fiction writers.  One of Butler’s primary concerns is that authors have set aside emotion, have forgotten that the “phenomenon of desire” should be at the center of every story.  “We are the yearning creatures of this planet” Butler says (40).  In a statement that also appears in Janet Burroway's seminal textbook Writing Fiction, he notes that “desire is the driving force behind plot.  The character yearns, the character does something in pursuit of that yearning, and some force or other will block the attempt to fulfill that yearning” (42).  Sound simple?  The trouble is all too often we forget what our characters want, muddy the water, create characters who are passive observers instead of active seekers.  Butler doesn’t think you should start writing until it’s absolutely clear what your character yearns for.
In this respect, Robert Olen Butler reminds me of another famous writer.  I like to quote Kurt Vonnegut to my students.  “Make your character want something right away” Vonnegut says, “even if it’s something as simple as a glass of water.  Characters paralyzed by the meaning of life still have to drink water from time to time.”  Vonnegut goes on to talk about a story one of this students wrote, about a nun who needs to remove a piece of dental floss from her teeth.  According to him, “the story was about deeper things than that, but no one who read the story could do so without fishing around in his or her mouth.”
The main advice in From Where You Dream is how to get access to that molten part of our unconscious minds.  Robert Olen Butler wants you to consider “dreamstorming, “ a process he describes like this:  “You’re going to sit or recline in your writing space in your trance and you’re going to free-float, free-associate, sit with your character, watch your character move around in the potential world of this novel” (87).    Butler wants you to do this day after day, before you ever start writing.  What emerges out of the dreamstorm should be a scattering of images, sensual moments, between six or ten words that indicate what is going to happen in this scene.  He advises doing this until you have filled two hundred or so three-by-five cards with potential scenes.  The goal of this dreamstorming is what “psychologists call functional fixedness.”  By seeking out a trance state day after day, your mind naturally responds, opening up doorways into the unconscious.  Once you have all the cards in place you organize them, searching for your opening scene.  The structure he says, grows “organically” from the process.  “When you are driven by the desire for the organic wholeness of the object, and by the need to recompose the elements that are already in the work, and by the dynamics of your character’s desire, structure will inevitably come from that” (94).
Do you buy into the process?  In a way it sounds like the advice I give my students for putting together a research essay, but with a strong mystical dose of meditation to tap into the right side of the brain.  I thought of Ray Bradbury (see my post from a few years ago) and his brainstorming lists from The Zen of Writing.  The primary thing I took from Where You Dream was the highly important emphasis of finding a way to enter that waking dream state, the trance mind, where all good writing originates.  I thought more deeply about my characters and what they want and how important it is to never lose sight of this.
I have an hour a day to write during the school year.  It’s all I can spare once the papers start rolling in.  Even if I don’t go all the way into using Butler’s three-by-five cards, I know from reading this book that I need to spend more time clearing my conscious mind, meditating, and the result will deepen my fiction.
There’s much more From Where You Dream than I have space for here.  The chapter on “The Cinema of the Mind” makes reading it worth your time and money alone.  For writers there’s an abundance of good advice about the process of shaping a novel and stories.  For the teacher of writing, there are great examples (and a neat activity using anecdotes that I’d like to try) about the writing workshop, including an appendix with an older short story of Robert Olen Butler’s, “Open Arms,” and student examples that incorporate analysis.
If you love writing, if you want to learn and grow, buy this book.  It’s one of the best books on writing that I’ve read in a long time.