Tuesday, October 16, 2007

From Where You Dream

I am obsessed with books on writing and craft. I just did a quick count and I have somewhere on the order of forty-five of them. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler, edited by Janet Burroway is one of the best.

This post is a bit of a cheat, since I used this review over at The Book Book several days ago, but I thought this book was worth talking about here too.

The book is less of a narrative on fiction writing than it is a transcription of a series of lectures Butler has given at Florida State University, where he teaches creative fiction writing.

Butler is the author of ten novels, two collections of short stories and is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

One of the things that make this book different from most is the tone. Most books on writing present methods and ideas as alternatives that may work for some writers and not for others. Butler makes no bones about what is and isn’t good fiction and he doesn’t mince words about how he believes you must pursue the creative process. Based on some of the reviews on Amazon, many readers couldn’t get past his voice and rejected what he said, based on that. My recommendation is to get over it, because he’s got a lot of great stuff in here.

The book is divided into three parts. The first has his lectures, and they read like lectures. He’s very clear that he’s talking about writing literary fiction, or creating art and he makes a distinction between art and commercial or genre fiction. Again, if this is going to offend you, you very likely won't care for this book, but you’d do well to smooth your feathers and see what he has to say, if you’re interested in some great ideas for elevating your fiction to the level of the best it can be.

He talks about “the zone”. All writers know this place and we do just about anything to find it as often as possible. He offers some valuable insights about “the zone” and accessing it. He talks a lot about writing from the unconscious, versus writing from the head. Unconscious = good; writing from the head = bad. He has an entire section on yearning and goes as far as to say that by far, the most common writing blunder that students and aspiring writers make is that they don’t make their characters yearn for something. The lecture called “Cinema of the Mind” is about the best I’ve ever read about showing and not telling, but it goes much deeper. By showing, he’s talking about concrete sensual details versus abstract, general description. Later on in the book, there is an actual exercise that he does with four students where he has them walk through a scene and describe what their characters are experiencing and it’s powerful. The students actually don’t do all that well – so useful in reading through this – because it’s very difficult to do, but by allowing us to be a fly on the wall, so to speak, the book really reinforces what sensual description is all about.

The section on Reading was especially intriguing to me, since I've been doing so much of it as a means to study great fiction. Butler emphasizes reading to evoke an aesthetic response, as opposed to reading analytically. From page 108-109:

“Your experience of this name should be aesthetic, not analytical. A kind of harmonic resonance is set up within you. That is the primary and appropriate response to a work of art. You don’t listen to a Beethoven symphony or look at a Monet painting or what Suzanne Farrell dance and walk away with your head full of ideas, having, say, sat in your chair and had the keen intellectual enjoyment of watching the way the themes of the first movement were echoed in the second and then turned into that crescendo in the fourth. That’s a separate kind of pleasure with certain value, but it is not the aesthetic response.

It seems to me that a lot of literature classes go wrong because the teachers, unintentionally but often intentionally, give the impression that writers are rather like idiots savants: they really want to say abstract, theoretical, philosophical things, but somehow they can’t quite make themselves do it. So they create these objects whose ultimate meaning and relevance and value come into being only after they have been subjected to the analysis of thoughtful literary critics, who translate that work into theoretical, philosophical, ideational terms.”

The third part of the book analyzes three actual short stories done by Butler’s students. The observations and critique are just invaluable.

I loved that this book touched on subjects that I just haven’t seen addressed quite in this way. There are some great techniques I’m anxious to try myself and I suspect this is one of the many books on writing that I will dog ear with repeated readings.

The biggest challenge I have with my current work in progress is that I've come to a point where I need to make a decision that impacts how I'll continue and how the story will be structured and it doesn't make any sense for me to write any more until I've done this. I feel very strongly that I need to access my unconscious mind in order to discover the rest of this story. It all makes sense on paper, but making that time and making that space to be open to inspiration is very difficult for me.

How do you do you find the space and the opportunity to open up your mind and solve your writing problems?


Yogamum said...

That sounds like a wonderful book. I'll have to take a look at it. I just finished Stephen King's "On Writing," which I loved, although he's not very detailed on the nuts and bolts aspects of writing. I enjoyed his humor and his "big picture" observations.

As for your questions -- that is precisely what I'm working on these days, in between all of the other demands on my time. Haven't figured it out yet. So let me know if you do!

Melissa Marsh said...

I didn't even know this book existed! I, too, am a sucker for books on writing. Just ordered another one from Amazon the other day. :-)

To solve my writing problems, I usually have to talk to my husband. Never fails that just talking about it will reveal the answer. He almost never comes up with the answer *grin*, but just chatting about it helps tremendously.

Ello said...

LIsa, I thought I had a lot of books on writing but you definitely beat me! This sounds like a great book so I just added it to my list of "must buys" which is unfortunately longer than my current list of "want to buys." But this sounds like a book I really need. I love his idea of reading aesthetically versus analytically. One of my all time favorite writing books is "78 Reasons why your book may never be published and 14 reasons why it just might." This book is absolutely fantastic and funny too. But the author Walsh talks about how he met a writer who had submitted to him and had been rejected who asked him why he was rejected. Walsh happened to remember that there were strange references that kept popping up which confused him. To which the writer replied that they were inside jokes which the writer implied would only be understood after there would be literary debate to deconstruct and analyze his book. I thought that was pretty funny but I guess some writers think that they will be the next James Joyce or Nabokov to be analyzed and dissected through the ages. But we shouldn't write like that now. We should write to bring pleasure to our readers. Which is why I so related to this passage you highlighted.

I got to a point like you did and it really helped me to do an outline and plot out my idea for scenes on index cards. Doing that actually perculated more ideas for how the story should flow.

good luck!

Charles Gramlich said...

Kind of cool that he talks about "resonance" here. I think it's a very good point. I'll check this book out. Janet Burroway has a pretty good book on writing as a craft. I have it, though it's at home and I can't remember the title at present. It's some years old.

Anonymous said...

What a great review, Lisa! I need to look at it again...I ended up drifting to other books before I finished this one. I think I had a sense that this one would be "important" and needed more attention. I really loved the chapters on yearning and writing cinematically...I just wish he had more information about getting into that "zone" because that eludes me at the moment.

Usually my writing problems stem from too much "life stuff"--if I am avoiding things in my life, inevitably they will show up in my writing as well. And not in a good way, alas. So usually I need to at least acknowledge what I am REALLY thinking about in order to start moving forward in my writing again.

Charles above mentioned the book by Janet Burroway--it's called "Writing Fiction" and it really IS one of the best out there. I recommend it, if you don't already have it (but you probably do LOL).

What are some of your other favorite writing books?

Patti said...

tequila has never failed me....

ok, i'm kidding....

or am i?

Carleen Brice said...

I think you're right: you'll want to tap into your subconscious for the decision you need to make. How I try to do that:

#1, writing walks
#2, I keep a notebook for my novel. I put newspaper articles or quotes or anything that sparks my imagination in the notebook, and I also jot down lots of notes. For some reason, doing this longhand is better than working at the computer. Also, if I'm really in the zone, I write sideways and very large. I use different color pens. I also make diagrams of what my story looks like. I have one now that shows how each character is connected to the others.
#3, I keep a bulletin board near my desk. An idea I got from Sue Monk Kidd. I put pictures from magazines and quotes and stuff that makes me think of my story. She's got a great post on her site about how it worked for her.

Good luck!

Shauna Roberts said...

That book sounds as if it has a lot to offer the genre writer as well. The idea that writers should read to experience the beauty of the book rather than to analyze its structure struck me as surprising but appealing. I'll definitely put this on my list to get.

As for how to access the subconscious, here are several ways I've used.

•Drink a lot of caffeine. If you're a non-caffeine drinker like me, caffeine can be a mind-altering substance without all the flaws of alcohol.

•Write when you're so tired that you can't think rationally.

•Think in depth about your problem and possible solutions before going to sleep. Sometimes the answer will come to you when you wake up or take your shower the next morning.

•Try making a List of Twenty (where you set a kitchen timer for 15 or 20 minutes and jot down 20 solutions before it rings).

The most effective thing I ever tried, which isn't practical on a regular basis, was to go away for a few days of complete solitude in a place with no phone or TV. (Your going away, as opposed to your spouse doing so, is key. If you're home, you're going to answer the phone, cook yourself meals, throw in some laundry, open the mail, etc. The point is to clear your head of all the distractions of real life. ) I subsisted on basics like cereal and peanut butter and spent the rest of my time doing whatever I wanted at that moment. I napped, I read for pleasure, I walked in a park, and I became so relaxed and clearheaded that when I sat down to make some notes about my novel, I planned out the rest of the book in perhaps three hours and made extensive notes for another book.

Lisa said...

Wow, this is so great. This is why I blog -- so many helpful ideas!

Kristi, I'll bring the book on Monday night and you can read it if you like or stop by anytime and you are welcome to check out any of my "library". I liked King's book too, although it is in the category of books that are more philosophical and less practical (I love them too).

Melissa, that works for me sometimes too. I'm also lucky to have my long distance writing friend Kristen, who heard my cry for help and talked through this particular problem with me for about an hour the other night (thank you Kristin!).

Ello, I need to check out that book -- AND, one of the exercises Butler recommends is very similar to what you've described. He calls it Dreamstorming (a more unconscious type of brainstorming) and he recommends listing scenes -- lots of them, maybe 200 -- and then eventually transferring them to index cards that finally lead toward an outline. It's the next thing I'm going to try.

Charles, I think I just bought the Burroway book you're talking about. It's in its 7th edition and apparently is a standard college textbook. It's called Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft. I've only thumbed through it, but it looks VERY good.

Mardougrrl, well YOU are the one who brought this book to my attention so thank you so very much. I carried this one around in my purse for a couple of weeks and kept reading a chapter here and a chapter there. It's actually a quick read, so you'll have no trouble getting back into it. Favorite writing books? Hmm -- sounds like good fodder for a future post. I have so many, maybe I'll list them and note the ones I really liked -- and some I haven't even read yet!

Patti, no you're not :) I'll bet you access your unconscious every single day when you go on that run, right?

Carleen, oh, these are great. I picked up on your "writing walk" a while ago and have to stop making excuses and just schedule it in as a daily thing. I also need to keep my novel notebook closer so I don't lose the sometimes sudden flashes that come. I love the bulletin board idea. I have a bunch of things up on a board that are more about writers (yep, I have your picture from the paper up there), but I need something for my story too. Great ideas.

Shauna, it absolutely does. Wow, you have tons of great ideas. I'd never considered writing when I'm especially tired, but I think you're onto something. Love the list of twenty on the timer too. AND, we are going to Mexico next week and have nothing planned but relaxation, so I've been targeting the week as a time to let the inspiration come -- cross your fingers for me!

Wow, you are all so great! This is what this whole blogging with other writers thing is all about.

Anonymous said...

Lisa, great post. I'm heading over to Amazon right after this.

About the zone.

When I'm writing a first draft, I set my little alarm and get up at 4am to write. The house is dark, everyone else is still asleep, and I'm closer to my lower levels of consciousness than I will be at any other time of day.

I have a pretty small daily quota of 500 words, once that's done I go for a walk. Often the sun is still coming up and Colorado first thing in the morning is a wondrous sight. While I walk, I'm not looking for insights, or clarifications in particular, but they often find me anyway.

Something else that doesn't get mentioned often. I'm pretty spiritual. Whenever I'm working on something I ask God, Allah, Energy, Mary, Buddha, Our Collective Self, whom ever you worship, for help.

Carleen Brice said...

Rebecca, 4 a.m.??? That's dedication! I can't even imagine trying to write with little kids in the house. 500 words a day is damn good! I'm very impressed!

And you remind me: I do pray too!

Lisa said...

Rebecca, I'm more the up until 4 a.m. type -- which mostly doesn't work for me! I keep thinking I need to shift my circadian rhythm back several hours. Winter is coming and that might just do it. AND Carleen's walk -- great point about the spiritual aspect of it all. I think that goes hand in hand with opening up and letting the answers come.

Carleen, I can't imagine how she does it either. I don't know when I went from someone who could multi-task and do just about anything with all kinds of distractions to someone who thinks the cat purrs too loudly :)

debra said...

I don't consider myself a writer,although I guess that writing is another manifestation of my creative process.
I always had trouble with college and high school instructors demanding analysis of books,rather than experiencing the sound and feeling of the words, and how I experienced and saw the story in my mind.
What is it like when you are a writer?

steve said...

I've actually gotten more helpful information from blogs such as yours and Charles's than from any "how to write" book. I haven't read it yet, but I've heard Walter Mosley talk about his book on writing on NPR. His advice in a nutshell: writers need to write. He's extremely discplined in his writing--sets aside so many hours every day. And I remember Peter Benchley on the Dick Cavett Show, saying that his grandfather Robert Benchley had him write for an hour or so each day. It could be trash, but he had to write. That's probably the bes basic advice for writers.

Christine said...

Wow! That book sounds great! I've stumbled into a writing funk for the past two weeks, so I know what I'll pick up next time I'm at Borders. Thanks for the great post!

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf