2 December, 2021

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler

There is no scarcity of advice for the student of creative writing. Guidance abounds, running the gamut from technical analyses to methods for kickstarting the creative impulse. Where the latter is concerned, the writer is advised to try writing to music, or daily journaling or cataloging her dreams (something this writer’s dreams are far too dull to consider), all established ways of tapping into the experience of the non-linear brain. Like many handbooks on craft, Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream includes analysis and examples, but the author layers his analysis with a study of how art and fiction craft connect—what he calls an “intuitive command of the essentials of the process of fictional art.”

You could say Butler’s book is a study in anti-craft craft. In an introduction by Janet Burroway, whose own book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is among the most recognized in its field, she writes of the “pleasurable paradox” in his idiosyncratic approach. Butler, the author of thirteen novels and six short story collections (including A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1993), draws on influences of contemporary and classic fiction while freely incorporating ideas from science, the arts and psychology. Burroway, who calls herself a contriver—a writer obsessed with the intricacies of fiction craft—admits being “preternaturally squeamish” to some of Butler’s terminology—which includes words like dream and unconscious and trance and yearning—to which I’d add dreamstorming. But Butler’s advice is not of the ineffable sort, on the contrary, his approach is a rigorous one that can serve as a guide for both novice and experienced writers.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “The Lectures,” are transcribed from Butler’s creative writing classes at Florida State University (where Butler is a longtime member of the CW faculty). Part Two, “The Workshop,” is a practicum on reading, the writing life, and guide for discussing works in-progress. The section also includes a chapter on “The Bad Story,” using one of Butler’s own as an exemplar. Part Three looks at stories written by FSU students, and includes comments from workshop discussions. Here the reader can observe how Butler engages his views on reading, talking about and creating fiction in a most useful way.

The crux of the material resides in Part One and contains much of the author’s crackling insight. Butler urges writers to avoid abstractions of language and learn to write, as they say, from a different place. This is also where Butler defines and applies his terms. The writer, he argues, must “irrationalize” herself; that is, write from inside her emotions rather than the abstraction of ideas. That description is itself a pretty general abstraction. Better to simply quote:

“The primary point of contact for the reader is going to be an emotional one, because emotions reside in the senses. What we do with emotions after that, to protect ourselves in the world, is a different thing; but emotions are experienced in the senses and therefore are best expressed in fiction through the senses.”

That may seem an obvious point, but this level of depth is one of fiction’s most elusive prerequisites—the writer’s ability to write from “inside” a work of fiction, inhabiting character and voice while modulating the narrator in seamless fashion. Butler’s principle is not exactly “show, don’t tell,” but more like “feel, don’t tell.” To illustrate further, he provides a sports analogy:

“Baseball players, when they are batting and in a streak, say they can count the stitches on the ball. They are in the zone, and that means they are not thinking at all. They call it muscle memory. But for you, it’s not muscle memory; its dream space, it’s sense memory.”

This approach centers firmly on the sense-based creative reflex, what is sometimes referred to as the zone of creative flow, in the sensory and emotional states of mind. Its inverse, Butler points out, is the rational counterpart of literal memory, which tends to interfere with this sense-based process. “Everything in a work,” he advises, “must remain malleable, everything must remain negotiable. You need to understand that working from your literal memory will keep you out of your unconscious, out of the zone you must enter.”

Toward that end, Butler identifies key ways in which the body and mind register emotion, and which together bring about the sensual depth found in all great works of writing. Not to be coy, but post these five points beside your computer and it’s likely your writing will improve from following these alone. He also provides advice on routine, which I discussed here, and daily journaling using his sense-based approach.

Butler also includes examples of his in-class process and shows him guiding students toward that point of sensory specificity. A chapter titled “The Anecdote Exercise” relates a fascinating exchange as Butler’s method helps to transform abstract impressions to sense-based ones. A student recounts moving through an empty house and at one point describes feeling “a presence over her shoulder.” Gradually, with Butler’s guidance, she applies sensory impressions to the same moment and rethinks the sensation, “revising” it to the infinitely more vivid detail of feeling “a presence like a warm hand between my shoulder blades.” Butler’s appeal to portray the external through the senses recalls Chekhov’s similar advice, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

To whit, I found the chapter titled “Yearning” a watershed, a way of understanding how a character’s desire is fundamental to plot, an aspect of craft I’ve long struggled with. Yearning, as Butler describes it, is an essential component of character and story:

“Yearning is always part of fictional character. In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire. It’s the dynamics of desire that is at the heart of narrative and plot.”

When applied to plot, yearning becomes a literary device that not only defines character, but brings about a crucial structural effect, and Butler clearly demonstrates how yearning drives action across a narrative arc. In addition, he cites examples from James Joyce, Margaret Atwood as well as a luminous excerpt from Burroway’s novel Cutting Stone, to show how yearning is expressed: “…[Y]earning is inherent,” he concludes, “in every detail of image, of voice, moment by moment in the narrator’s experience.” It’s one of Butler’s principal insights, and given the relevance of its integrity to the artistic whole, more than worthy of its own chapter.

Finally, if you’re inclined, you can experience Butler’s methods first-hand. In 2001, he documented his writing process in what he described as the “first ever live creation of an original short story online.” The resulting work became “This is Earl Sandt,” included in Butler’s 2004 collection, Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards. The webcast of its creation took place in seventeen online sessions, in real time on-screen, “from its first inspiration to its final polished form,” and is currently available free on iTunes.



1 thought on “From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler

  1. I was fortunate to study with Bob Butler to get my MFA. This book and his method will bring a writer to the point of creating art from imagination, senses, and memory if she is brave and patient enough to go where she dreams.

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