Butler’s Approach to Fiction Writing, Part 1

Fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning.
— Robert Olen Butler

I’ve been reading a book on writing fiction that has spun my notions about the process around 180 degrees, spinning me to almost to how I used to think about writing as a young man before the force of circumstances, or my lack of talent, changed my mind.

The book is From Where You Dream (2005, Grove Press) by Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his short story collection, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain.  The book is based on a series of lectures he gave in a university course on fiction writing.

He is adamant that creative fiction does not come from the mind, from ideas or abstraction.  It comes from the place where one dreams.  The writer, according to Butler, must induce a trance state in himself in order to create a work of art.  One must strive to write in a white heat of inspiration.  I’ll come back to what he means by “trance” and by “induce.”

This is how I always wanted to write when I made my first halting attempts at it, and how I always imagined it should be.  I waited for a long time in a breathtakingly naive way for lightning bolts of writerly inspiration to strike me full in the temple, leading to epileptic seizures of massively creative fervor with fingers smoking over the keyboard, pages leaping by themselves out of the typewriter, or the word processor, or the computer printer, as the eras of my life marched on.

When I read how somebody like Dickens or Kerouac managed to write, the former whose characters literally came to life before him, and the other benefitting from a deliriously free mind often augmented by chemicals, I am forced to recognize how truly uninspired I typically am.

And yet I have persevered, starting and giving up on several novel attempts.  Finally I forced myself to slog through a first draft of sort of a thriller/adventure story, writing three pages a day, day after day, inspiration or no.  Almost always no.  Then a second draft.  This took me around a year or so.  I was singularly unimpressed with what I had wrought, but at least I didn’t tear it up part way through, as had been my wont previously.  But quite unsatisfactory, the result.  It’s in a drawer somewhere.

In terms of process, I was forced to the conclusion that writing a novel for me is a pedestrian pursuit…  no, more a hard climb up a long steep hill, with not much of a view at the top.  And I read books on writing that agreed at least partially that writing is not fun or for the faint-hearted, and it’s perspiration, not inspiration…  It’s hard work, damn it, and don’t expect anything else.

But now Butler has got me in a bit of a tizzy.  Before I try to explain further what he says about the process, I should define better what Butler means by the art of fiction.

“In the work of art, the most important moments are the most sensual of all, the most in the moment… the human condition resides in the details, the sense details.”  He goes on: “The primary point of contact for the reader is going to be an emotional one, because emotions reside in the senses [his italics].”

He says there are five ways for emotions to be expressed and experienced through fiction:

1) The sensual reaction inside our body: heartbeat, muscle tightening, stomach clench.

2) Sensual response that sends signals out from our body: posture, facial expression, way of walking, sweat.

3) As an experience of emotion, we can have flashes of the past.  These are recalled, not in an analytical or intellectual way, but “as little vivid bursts of waking dream.”

4) There are flashes of the future, similar to flashes of the past, of something that might or might not happen, images of fear or desire or anticipation anchored in the senses, more bursts of waking dream.

5) The experience of what Butler calls sensual selectivity.  Our fictional characters are surrounded by hundreds, thousands of sensual cues.  Emotions select which ones are paid attention to.

“We look at the landscape and what we see out there is our deepest emotional inner selves.”  This is an interesting statement, since it connects closely for me to the notion of the shadow: the projection of unknown and deep parts of ourselves upon others and the outside world.

Butler wants writers to get away from thinking too much about ideas for stories.  If it’s just an idea, it’s not going to go anywhere important.  This strikes a chord with me: I can attest to this, all the nice ideas that have no real story in them.

His approach is to leave behind the comforting, distancing analytical voice in our heads, and drop into a place where one’s total attention is on the sensual flow of experience from the unconscious.  How is this done?  The unconscious by definition isn’t very accessible.

In the next part, I will explore how he goes about this for himself.  But I’ll end here for now with the example that Butler uses of the effort involved.  He cites Akira Kurosawa’s dictum: “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”  Then he describes basketball great Michael Jordan in the zone, deking defenders, making impossible moves in the air, and dropping the ball through the basket.  To do what the writer must do, though, Jordan must not only take flight with the ball instinctively but without flinching confront the moment when his father’s chest was blown apart by a kidnapper’s shotgun, and then score the basket.  Says Butler: “Now you understand the challenge of being an artist.”

Note: The second part of this discussion continues here.


Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Writing

7 Comments on “Butler’s Approach to Fiction Writing, Part 1”

  1. qazse Says:

    ” leaping by themselves out of the typewriter, or the word processor, or the computer printer, as the eras of my life marched on.” Wonderfully put. Clever, creative, and progressive. Where did it come from? You. The interplay between conscious and subconscious. Just as logic flows from inductive to deductive to inductive… so too creation. The key? Love your words. Even the ones you throw away – love them…they took the beach. Drag out the old stuff and weed it, shape it; they are there to give voice to the concepts below which struggle to be heard.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Thanks so much for your encouragement…

    I do like to drag out the old stuff, sometimes, just to get a sense of the older version of me…

    There’s a value in writing more, or as much as one can… occasionally a breeze lifts and you catch a gust of words you didn’t know was in you.


  3. sputnki Says:

    As I’ve grown I’ve come to recognize that there are moments of ‘inspiration’, that if I don’t drop everything else and let that inspiration flow and take advantage of it while it’s there, I’ve wasted it. Over time I’ve recognized there are things that encourage this in me:

    – Reading or listening to something truly inspirational. One good example of this is Roberto Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”.
    It is about the greek myths and gods but written by someone who’s familiarity with them and exultation in language (even through translation) can carry you away.

    The counter side to this is that when you AREN’T in the state of inspiration for awhile, you become depressed and obsess about the next ‘hit’…

    There is no benign success as an artist, it seems, but the roller-coaster of a manic-depressive!

    I remember the scene in “The Dead Poet’s Society” when Robin Williams character gets all the students to stand on their desks. Get a new perspective, break out of the rut, the usual, the ordinary.

    Blah blah blah…. I swear I’m not a loquacious person, but you seem to hit subjects close to the heart! Haul out those old half-novels and cut out the inspired bits. Shuffle them like cards then lay them out in an arbitrary sequence and see what you get!


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    I remember well that scene in The Dead Poet’s Society! It made an impression (besides being the first movie I took my wife to…). I must watch it again.

    I’ll take a look at that book you mention… haven’t heard of it before. I can always use some mythic input.

    Being bi-polar may be the ideal psychological type for creative work! Since you can’t be up all the same, you have to be willing to take the valleys along with the peaks. And at least you do have peaks with their accession of high energy… Unfortunately, I seem to more of the morose, uncertain, tense turn of mind, straining against my much too accessible limits.

    One of the benefits of keeping notebooks over the years is to be able to go back and see what was making an impression on you at the time. I don’t think I want to revisit for too long my old writing though… time to move on to something bright and better!


  5. […] overlaid scheme, as one that grows out of the characters’ “yearning” (to borrow Robert Olen Butler’s term for the desire lines in a story), and associated […]

  6. […] I wanted to further explore Robert Butler’s ideas about the fiction writing process in his book, From Where You Dream (Grove Press, 2005), following upon my previous post. […]

  7. […] couple of the more popular posts on this site are the two I wrote way back in 2007 about Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s book of lectures on fiction […]

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