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.