Saturday, October 13, 2007


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 I've read.

The book is primarily 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 one must pursue the creative process. Based on some of the reviews on Amazon, many readers couldn’t get past his voice and therefore rejected what he said. My recommendation is to get over it if you can, because there's great stuff in here.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section is the lectures, and they read like lectures. Very early in the book, he makes it clear that he’s talking about writing literary fiction, or creating art and although he does give genre fiction its propers, he makes a distinction between art and commercial, or genre fiction. If this is going to offend you, you probably won't like this book, but you may want to smooth your feathers and see what he has to say anyway.

He talks about “the zone”. All writers know this place and do just about anything to go there 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 a section on yearning and says that by far, the most common writing flaw he sees with aspiring writers is that their characters don't yearn for something. The lecture called “Cinema of the Mind” is about the best I’ve ever read on showing versus 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 a transcript of an actual exercise that he did with four students. He had each of them walk through a scene and describe what their characters were experiencing. It’s powerful. The students 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.

Of particular interest to writers and contributors to The Book Book is the section on Reading. In particular, he 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.

I loved that this book touched on subjects that I haven’t seen addressed quite in this way, if at all. 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.


moonrat said...

that quote is SO GOOD.

i read for pleasure and sympathy--and that's a perfectly acceptable reason to read.

angelle said...

i've seen this book around and have wondered about it. thanks for this, i may pick it up.

Church Lady said...

Hmmm... maybe when I'm older I'll start reading books about the craft of writing. I don't know why I have a phobia about this.

For now, I prefer to read excellent books and learn from the masters.

I guess I think of books about writing as 'telling' where reading great books is more like 'showing.' Just an opinion!