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All about words



Great stuff straight from Robert Olen Butler

Posted by nancyfreund11 on July 6, 2018 at 1:35 PM

A week ago in Portugal, I attended Robert Olen Butler’s workshop at the 15th International Conference on the Short Story in English. (Google it. Truly remarkable thing, every two years... ok, wait – here). He sat at the head of a large table in a University of Lisbon classroom – terrible temperature control, as is the case with all classrooms everywhere in the world – and as soon as everybody started scribbling notes, he said don’t bother it’s all in his book. Which it is. I’ve read ‘From Where You Dream’– devoured it, really – and I can vouch, it’s all there. But being in the room, in the moment, is pretty powerful. So can you blame me? I took notes. And now, I’ll share! Also, if you’re tempted to get the book, DO IT.

Butler is a generous instructor. If he’s figured something out, about writing or the community of writers, he shares it. Also, I’ve witnessed his remarkable ability to gauge his crowd. He seems to just know who wants more attention, who wants less, who’s eager to participate but is shy, who’s about to hog a mic (and shouldn’t), and so on. I’m sure it’s this sensitivity, translated to the page, that has won his writing so many accolades including the Pulitzer. By the way, we learned that his full archive is to be housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Every scrap of writing he’s kept since childhood – 136 boxes now on their way to New Haven. Robert Olen Butler’s archives will be hanging out with notables like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Langston Hughes. Point is, the man knows his stuff, and the world knows he knows it.

So here are some tips and talking points from that room in Portugal – his words and mine:

1) A workshop is an artificial experience of literature. Therefore, he doesn’t do peer critiques in his. In fact, he suggests that every writer have only 2-3 trusted readers for feedback, at most. They must be people who GET you, who read slowly, and who can dream the work with you. Not people who look to help you alter your craft. Note to self – I’m often exactly the wrong type of feedback provider. I see a wonky comma, I can’t help but help out. (Side note - check out Anne Lamott’s Ted Talk, esp from 3:23… where she says, “don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody…” 

2) The most important thing to understand as a writer is what Japanese film director, Kurosawa, says: To be an artist means never to avert your eyes... despite the very human impulse, of course, to flinch and turn away from difficult or disturbing things, the things that reside in the white-hot center of your SELF. Human beings are creatures of the body and of the moment. Moment by moment. An artist wants to make sense of chaos without relying on theory and abstraction but by returning to the pre-chaos of the body and the moment, which is emotion. It does not come from the mind. It comes from the place where you dream. Not FROM your dreams, but from the unconscious, the PLACE where you dream – hence the book title. Butler says the minute a student tells him, I’ve got an idea for a story, he says, no you don’t. No story, he contends, begins in the mind – as an idea. It begins in the body, in the dream state, in the white hot chaos. Note to self – it’s easy to think well, la-ti-da, lucky you writers inhabiting your white hot dream states and emerging with finished fiction. I’m too in my head to do that, I think. I’m in the white hot miasma and the head, at all times – both. But the fact is, the strongest stuff I’ve written – I’m 100% certain of this – is the stuff that just COMES. And I let it come. Is it chaos? Is it flow? I think it’s all of the above. Then it gets rewritten a bit – re-dreamed, per Butler, and made workable. But the fact is the more I embrace the chaos, the more my writing holds power. So a little freedom, a little less brainy-act… the more dream-state production, the better.

3) A note on the Short Story conference itself, because it’s a rare format. This is a place where the birds and the ornithologists flock together. So true! I found the experience of being with the actual writers and some of the world’s top researchers on the writers pretty remarkable. In some cases, one room’s audience was treated to a PhD paper on one writer, while that very writer was delivering her reading in a room nearby. Likewise, people I met at this conference four years ago in Vienna were quoted in people’s slides this year. It elevated the “poor cousin of literature,” the short story, to the VIP role in the family. Be aware that often the poor cousin turns out to be rich, rich, rich!

4) On the experience of reading, Butler says What SHOULD happen with literature is you should THRUM to it. But this class can add a few strings to your upper and lower registers so you can thrum to it more harmoniously. This explains why it’s so important to seek feedback only from genuinely slow, invested readers. The minute you begin reading through a question of “what am I going to say about this?” as in a workshop, is the minute you lose your ability to thrum to it. No one reading at speed is going to really dive in and connect with your words. They won’t make time for the experience of THRUM.

5) Many artists are aware of what they’re TRYING to do and then try to reverse engineer it. Butler contends that no great work of art has ever been reversed engineered. He adds that athletes operating on muscle memory, without thinking – when they are in the zone – are at their best. They start making mistakes when they start THINKING about what they’re doing. It’s the same with writing… or it can be.

6) Write every day. If you step outside the experience of the writing even for a day, you lose your connection to it, and you have to work hard to rebuild it. Prevention of such losses is important, and the most important thing is simply the practice of being in the writing every day.

7) In Graham Greene’s memoir ‘A Sort of Life,’ he said all good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism – as non-fiction – whereas what you’ve forgotten goes into a compost heap of experience that helps to grow story. If you have a bad memory, embrace it. If you have a good memory, tell it to get the hell out of the way. This one’s almost entirely bold, because I took it straight from my notes. I have a feeling my diligent note-taking has always been my method of compensating for a bad memory. Now I must try instead to embrace it. Three cheers for the compost heap!

8. Story is human yearning over time – even if the character is a cockroach or a robot or a dog… it’s all human. A goal is identified, and the character works to attain it, yearning, yearning as they go. With genre fiction – romance, for instance, or mystery – the goal is defined by the genre. Hook the hunky billionaire. Discover who committed the murder in the library with the lead pipe. With literary fiction, there’s no genre-defined goal, so it’s easier to get lost in a less obvious plot. But Butler contends that every story ultimately is about a character yearning for a self, an identity, his/her unique place in the universe. Also, he says the majority of student mistakes he sees in new writing is a lack of awareness of the temporal aspect of the narrative. Yearning thwarted or progressed OVER TIME. A question I never asked and still wish I could… is this quest for identity, this foundational aspect of human nature, a desire to define one’s place in the universe as seen and recognized by others? Is there a community aspect to it? Or is a quiet self-discovery sufficient? Further, what if one is publicly recognized for some identity that one doesn’t fully feel is justified… or is plain wrong? Is that crazy-making? Might that also be the stuff of literary fiction?

9) Don’t outline. That’s likely to draw you off. Instead, here’s how to brainstorm, how to revise, how to dreamstorm: Butler’s notecard method, taking ideas for possible scenes (the moment-to-moment sensual situation, your “of the body” stuff) is google-able, and worth looking at in more detail. Bottom line is he recommends only scribbling a few key words onto a notecard to trigger thoughts. You want to move your character free-associatively through possible scenes. All kinds of possible scenes! You’ll use many; you’ll toss many out. One notecard per scene, say 6-8 words to encapsulate the idea. Butler likes 3x5 cards. Then organize the cards, and only then, get writing. Only write the ONE SCENE from the ONE CARD at a time. Stick close to your compost heap and don’t over-think. You want to write from instinct. That’s why he calls it DREAM-storming and not BRAIN-storming. Same process for revision and further drafts.

10) One last thing – if you search YouTube, or just click this, you can find actual video of Butler writing a short story, start to finish, including departures from the text for research. It’s an FSU thing, in numerous individual posts. I saw it years ago, and thought it was great – both the fact that he did it, and the fact that it’s available.

Maybe the links that don't link can be entered like this:

Book, From Where You Dream:

 Anne Lamott's Ted Talk:

Robert Olen Butler writing a short story video:


Categories: writing & publishing, education & literacy, expat, travel, & cross-cultural issues

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