The Writing Life: Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler
Robert Olen Butler (Joshua Butler)
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By Robert Olen Butler
Sunday, September 21, 2008

I have always freely admitted how badly I wrote before my mature writing life began. Over more than a decade, I generated close to a million words of dreck -- a dozen terrible full-length plays, 40 dreadful short stories, five wretched novels -- before something turned in me and produced the novel that became my first good and first published book. Thankfully, not one of those initial million words ever found its way into print.

I've been very conscious of that early work recently, as I've hired one of my best graduate students to spend two afternoons a week organizing my papers, including those first benighted words. A few weeks ago, I stepped into the back room of my writing cottage, where he is working, to refill my coffee cup. He looked up from the stacks of manuscript pages and legal-pads and asked, "What happened to change your writing?"

On some level, the answer is simple: It happened when I wrote the first sentence of what became The Alleys of Eden. When that novel reached its fullness in my imagination, I was finally able to go to the right place within me to find the characters and give them voice. I knew almost at once I was in the right place. But of course that doesn't address what a beginning writer really wants to know: how do I make that change in my own writing? I truly didn't understand how I did it myself until last fall, when I was on a panel about dreams and creativity at the Faulkner Society's Words and Music Conference in New Orleans.

I was invited to participate in that panel because in two decades of teaching creative writing, I've always emphasized the importance of the artistic process, basing my pedagogy on an awareness of my own process, the heart of which is the primacy of what I refer to as the "dreamspace." That is certainly not to say that I think one's work literally comes from one's dreams. But the "right place" for the creation of any work of art is that same irrational, sense-based part of our deepest selves that fuels our dreams.

I was only sketchily prepared for the panel. I began with a rewelded boilerplate from my teaching notes. But the discussion eventually veered off into a consideration of our own personal dreams. I recalled the most truly memorable one I've ever had, in the late spring of 1974. I've always understood that particular dream as having changed my waking attitude about something in the external world. But as I spoke extemporaneously about it, the dream began to explain itself to me more fully, and I realized at last what it was that changed my writing. I dreamed about Richard M. Nixon.

I enter an urban apartment somewhere in New York City. A long central room stretches before me to the far wall, where a window looks out on the dingy façade of a warehouse across the street. Along the left-hand wall is a couch. At the far end of the couch sits President Nixon. I had this dream at the height of the Watergate scandal. I was an ardent young liberal, and so, like millions of others at that time, I hated Nixon. Hated him deeply, avidly, unremittingly, personally.

Nevertheless, I approach the couch and sit on the near end. Nixon is dressed formally, as he always was, even when photographed walking on the beach at San Clemente in that characteristic, stiff, Nixonian inappropriateness that seemed to billboard his inhumanity. In my dream, he is wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt and a carefully knotted maroon tie and wingtips. One leg drapes over the other knee.

It is the perfect image of Richard M. Nixon. Except that he is weeping. Copiously. His whole body is shaking with sobs, his face bowed, his hands clasped quakingly before him, fingers entwined. And with that innate wisdom we sometimes possess in dreams, I understand why. On his crossed leg, his pant has ridden up and the sock has fallen down. Instantly, I know, with absolute certainty, that Nixon is sobbing because he can't keep his socks up. As soon as I understand this, my hatred for him vanishes. I am filled, instead, with pity and a kind of awe. This man, with his immense political power -- with all his dirty tricks, enemy's lists and lies -- is, at his own mortified center, a guy who can't keep his socks up.

I emerged from the dream to find that in my waking life, as well, my animus for Nixon was gone. All that remained were the pity and the awe. The dream had permanently altered my feelings about the man. For years, that was as far as I understood the effect of the dream. It had wrought such an obvious and surprising change in my surface attitude that I didn't notice its deeper effect.

But now I know more. Soon after that dream, I began to write in a different way. I came intuitively to understand the process of creating art. The insight into Nixon had not originated in my rational, analytical mind -- the place where I had wrongheadedly been working to write those million words -- but from my unconscious, the place where I dream. Moreover, the insight itself, as in any work of art, was imbedded not in ideas or abstractions -- of which there were far too many in early works -- but in the moment-to-moment sensual details: a man dressed in a conservative business suit, sobbing; a pair of socks fallen down at the ankle. Perhaps most important, I understood that an artist has to be compassionate. We create characters -- virtual souls -- and ask our readers to see them as true reflections of some aspect of the human condition. And we place those characters in situations where they must make choices that inescapably imply a universe of values and standards. In essence, we writers act out the role of God. And if we're going to do that, then it is incumbent on us to be a loving God.

Every morning when I sit down at my desk to write, I feel I am called upon to try to give voice to something true about the human condition. From the place where I dream, I have learned that I must see this not as an act of judgment but as an exploration of our shared humanity. ·

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