Words to Live By

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, May 13, 2005


The Process of Writing Fiction

By Robert Olen Butler

Edited and with an introduction by Janet Burroway

Grove. 269 pp. $24

Books on the writing process come around as regularly as sermons on Sunday. On my own shelves -- and this is far from a definitive collection -- I find "Aspects of the Novel" by E.M. Forster, "Your Life as Story" by Tristine Rainer, "Writing From the Inside Out" by Dennis Palumbo, "If You Want to Write" by Brenda Ueland, "The Writer on Her Work," by Janet Sternburg, Anne Lamott's wonderful "Bird by Bird," "Writing for Your Life," an encyclopedic collection of Publishers Weekly interviews by the radiantly competent and sensitive Sybil Steinberg, "Writing Out the Storm," a marvelous work on writing through illness by Barbara Abercrombie, "Before We Get Started" by Bret Lott (which got roundly roasted by Jonathan Yardley in these pages), "Pen on Fire" by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett and my own personal favorite, "Making a Literary Life" by a certain Carolyn See (which, however, was dismissed by Sven Birkerts in the Los Angeles Times as "mere commerce").

So here is another book on creative writing, especially as it is taught in universities in workshop situations. Since Robert Olen Butler prefers to write only fiction, this volume was put together from his lectures and writing classes by Janet Burroway, a fellow faculty member at Florida State University who had already written "Imaginative Writing" and "Writing Fiction." At some point in all this, the phrase "enough is enough" comes to mind, but who am I to say? I'm up there on that partial list with all the rest. And I'm very fond of my book; I think it is the God's Honest Truth, and Sven Birkerts can go drown in butterscotch pudding for all I care. And so is Burroway greatly fond of Butler: "He is an enthusiast, demanding and prescriptive. But his lectures also exhilarate. They respect your reach."

"From Where You Dream" (the book itself) is divided into three parts, the first consisting of five lectures in which Butler reminds his students that his class is a form of boot camp, that most of what they have written is bound to be lousy because it comes from the "smart" part of their minds instead of the "white hot" unconscious. He warns his students not to use things that come directly to their minds right away, but to compost them for a while so that they meld with the rest of the writers' deeper experience or soul -- a little like Wordsworth's "recollections in tranquility."

Indeed, Butler insists on weeks or months of daydreaming, of meditation upon characters and scenes, before you even begin to write. He then decrees that each of your characters become suffused with yearning; that is, they must want something or someone dearly and completely if the story is to transform itself into fiction at all. He insists on a rigorous retrieval of "sense-memory" in the Stanislavsky model, the kind of exercises that led to Method acting on stage and screen.

So what's not to like? Authors have been talking about writing from the unconscious since Aristotle adjured us to "Cast the scene up in front of your eyes" and then write what you "see." E.M. Forster gleefully dismissed all the bad writing in the world by noting that so many people have second-rate unconscious minds, and William Saroyan cheerily alluded to this trance state in an old short story, "The Poet at Home," that I spent half this afternoon trying to find.

So there's nothing new here, but there's nothing wrong with that. "Honor thy father and thy mother" gets repeated a lot, but it's always worth listening to and almost always right. Butler introduces an interesting form of outlining involving three-by-five cards; now that I think of it, Raymond Chandler did the same thing, to wonderful effect.

But the second and third parts of "From Where You Dream" spook me. They use students' material as examples of work that doesn't have enough yearning in it, and although we all know that writers sell out their parents, their lovers and sometimes their children on a fairly regular basis, selling out your students does seem a bit much. If any writing professor spoke to me (as a defenseless student) the way Butler does, I'd change my major immediately to international finance, but not before figuring out a way to poison his wife. Both Butler's strict adherence to the one tenet of "yearning" and the heavy-handed criticism he dishes out to his students -- and in print! -- seem unconscionable. He also has included a "bad" version of a story he wrote once and then, as a treat, appended a "good" version of the same story at the end of the book. But I much preferred one of his students' stories, Rita Mae Reese's "My Summer in Vulcan," to both of them. How embarrassing is that?

One truth here is that you shouldn't bully your students under any circumstances. Another truth might be that one man's meat is another man's poison. And finally, there is the sad truth that "teaching" writing is a dubious pastime, at best.

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