book by Robert Olen Butler and Janet Burroway
annotation by Telaina Eriksen
This engaging series of lectures and workshops by Robert Olen Butler, transcribed by a graduate student, and edited by Janet Burroway is a breath of air and validation for those authors who believe that writing cannot be taught.
Butler argues that fiction comes not from the mind, but from the heart, “from where you dream” and he offers MFA students a wealth of examples, philosophy and writing exercises to support his claim.
The best moments of the book are when Butler attempts to define the indefinable about writing and literature. In talking about the difference between genre and literary writing Butler says, “(genre writing) It is not art because her emotional response is a result of her filling in the blanks left by that abstraction. The direct, visceral response to the text results from her filling in from her own fantasies, her own past, and her own aspirations. Abstract, summarizing, generalizing and analytic language will induce the reader to fill in the blanks and thereby distance her from the work and the characters. The moment-to-moment fresh, organically connected sense impressions of the work of art will draw the reader into it. In the emotional reaction to a work of art, you do not fill in from yourself; you leave yourself. You enter into the character and into the character’s sensibility and psychology and spirit and world. It’s the difference between masturbation and making love. The former is a self-referential experience; you have on the surface, a similar response, but it’s a closed loop. In making love, you leave yourself and enter into the other; that is the experience between two people connecting in deeper ways. And that’s the experience of literature.” (46-47)
He talks about the two kinds of novelists—the preplanner/outliner and the draft writer. (86) Butler suggests a third way, what he considers to be a more organic way, saving you on time and structure and ensuring the author the book will come from the heart, not the head. He suggests a series of index cards and key words for scenes on a legal pad, where the structure is loose and can adapt and change to the needs of the novel. This results in a nearly complete novel that you do not have to rewrite from page one to restructure it.
Butler tells authors and writers to keep living. To close yourself totally into writing and academia is to kill the creative wellspring. (118) He emphasizes that a piece of art is alive and breathing. He uses the word organic many times.
He also offers student stories that were workshopped in the appendix, as well as a before (head) and after (dream) piece of his own.
This book is accessible and easy to read and will strike a chord with all those writers out there who rebel at the outlining structuralists and who strive to write from their hearts every day.
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