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.