From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction - Robert Olen Butler, Janet Burroway I’ve already managed to force this book into the hands of several fellow aspiring writers. If I had I my way I would make it required reading. There are so few books that deal with the creative side of fiction, as opposed to the grammar/structure/revision side, that books like Butler’s are like an oasis after weeks in the desert.This book only came into existence because of Butler’s ability to inspire other writers. He teaches his course at Florida State University with only a few index cards and the participation of his students. One of those students, Jane Burroway, re-attended his course on fiction, recording the lectures to reproducing them in print, because Butler “refuses to set non-fictional pen to paper”.What results is a very approachable mediation on the creative process and what Butler feels are the best tools to reach the creative state that Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow”. The book reads like a transcript of a creative writing class, which gives the reader a feeling of inclusively.That inclusively is botched when Butler dogs on genre writers a little and fetishes writer’s block as the domain of writers who are producing work of value — hacks can always produce more words. Does that suddenly devalue the work of Anthony Trollope, who would produce ten pages of writing before breakfast?. Does finding out E.L. James struggled with block elevate Fifty Shades of Grey to the status of Pride and Prejudice?Butler stresses that the best writing comes not from cerebral “ideas” but from visceral emotions, “from where you dream”. I’m interested in working with Butler’s method of outlining, using what he calls a meditative state to produce images of scenes on index cards, then organizing those cards a few scenes ahead of your progress as you draft. What he would call “meditative state” I might call “focussed brainstorming” and looking back, I see it’s similar to the way I tend to write my first drafts, but I think the added structure will make my process more efficient.The second half of the book contains an exercise or two in creating immediacy and emotion in your writing, and how to enter the meditative state that Butler described in the first half. Examples from the students in the classes that Burroway recorded are then discussed. We receive the discussion in script format with the students questions and Butler’s responses. The inclusion of the examples and discussion was a very nice touch and I found by the third, I was predicting Butler’s responses, and often agreeing with them.As Butler stresses, his opinions are not the be-all-end-all of writing. All teachers have their hangups and the best favour we can do for ourselves is to listen to a lot of them until we find out own. I don’t agree with all of Butler says, but I connected with enough of it that his book will be an oft-visited encouragement as I continue my search for my own creative method.This review also appears at Boxes of Paper.