Robert Olen Butler’s book on writing, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, is the most helpful book on writing I have ever read.
Several months ago I had the pleasure of reading it alongside Butler’s newest novel, A Small Hotel. I would highly recommend this reading experience.
From Where You Dream was edited by Janet Burroway, who collected a series of Butler’s lectures on creative writing at Florida State University. The book feels like you’re sitting in a lecture hall listening to Butler wax eloquent about the creative process. If you’re a writing nerd like me, it’s an awesome treat.
What makes it so helpful? I’m glad you asked!
The White-Hot Center
Janet Burroway writes in her introduction,
I have to say that … my initial resistance to Butler’s message was strong. His central obsessions lead him toward words about which I am preternaturally squeamish–like ‘dream’ and ‘unconscious’ and ‘trance’ and ‘yearning’ and ‘white-hot center’ and ‘art object’–whereas I have been known to describe myself as a ‘contriver,’ which would certainly make him squirm.
I kind of love all the talk of the white-hot center, so I love this passage from the first chapter, “Boot Camp”:
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.
Great. How do we make that happen in our writing?
We let go of our conscious control. Anne Lamott talks, in Bird by Bird, about a friend who describes the process of letting his creativity take control like a kid drawing with crayons passing him the art, piece by piece.
Writers must move past abstraction and generalization and write the specific: how specific moments feel as experienced moment to moment through the senses.
Here let me stop and say that I read this book, completely jiving with Butler and everything he was saying, and feeling confident that I’d incorporated this into my work. Two weeks later I got a fiction packet back from my MFA professor with notes: General, Abstract, Make this experience more specific. Sometimes the only way to learn that you’re generalizing is to have someone else point it out in your work.
Speaking of creativity, the white-hot center, and having someone look at your work … I’m excited to introduce, very soon, my new services as a creativity consultant. Stay tuned!
Butler contends that the single most crucial element of writing a character is to understand, and write from, his or her yearning. He believes that “desire is the driving force behind plot.” In fact, he recommends that you don’t start writing “until a character with yearning has emerged from your unconscious.”
I tend to learn a lot about my characters, including what they yearn for, from the act of writing–from moving my hand across the paper. But I admit that revising my novel would have been a lot easier if I had focused first on the characters and their yearning, instead of trying to jam them into a plot idea that came from my head (which resulted in me scrapping the entire draft, not once, but twice.)
Cinema of the Mind
Butler discusses great writers who used a cinematic technique in fiction–including Dickens, who of course was writing long before film, and Hemingway. In their “shots,” every image is clear and precise, and nothing is wasted. The framing of each image communicates so much that they can use fewer words than a lesser writer might.
The rest of the book includes writing exercises—both examples of in-class exercises Butler did with his students, and a long writing exercise you can do yourself, with examples of his students’ written stories that came from the exercise, along with analysis by Butler himself.
As I read Butler’s manifesto on art and yearning and the white-hot center, his insistence that fiction and art must come from the place where you dream, I read his latest novel, A Small Hotel. The book describes one day in the life of a married couple on the day their divorce is meant to be finalized—but isn’t, because Kelly Hays leaves Florida without signing the papers and drives to New Orleans to stay in the hotel where she first met her husband Michael. Meanwhile, Michael is spending the day with his new girlfriend, at another small hotel in Louisiana.
The novel is delicious, unfolding Kelly’s and Michael’s memories of how they met and of the big and small moments in their marriage. In every new unfolding, something in our understanding of the characters and their marriage shifts. Every moment is experienced through the senses, including the frequent flashbacks, which are handled seamlessly. I turn to this book for examples even now when I’m writing flashbacks. Butler is especially good at introducing them without using the word ‘remember,’ which I find masterful. His work is an idea to which I aspire.
Read From Where You Dream on how to write, and read A Small Hotel to see how it’s done in action. Enjoy!
What is your favorite book on writing?
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