March 29, 2012


Author Robert Olen Butler who wrote From Where You Dream, a book on writing fiction, says that getting into the zone for writing is “pure torture” (page 24). A writer would, of course, choose to dramatize a process over making it accessible through language. You almost can’t blame him. After all, he’s giving away all his writing secrets and that’s damn generous. However, if it was “pure torture”, as he says it is, would I really do it every day. No, I wouldn’t. I’m not one for pain. Is there a way into the dream state other than through pure torture?

According to Butler, whose book has provoked considerable controversy among writers, every piece of writing must originate with the “dreamstate”. Any willfully conscious work will result in pure dreck, embarrassing stuff that one wants to destroy before the world gets a whiff. And truly I often write such trash. I must confess that sometimes I record the noise in my head which, according to Butler, would nail me as a writer with no talent. (Include Natalie Goldberg “free writing” and Anne Lamotte’s “shitty first draft”  in that category?) “When you turn off that flow of garbage in your head,… you’re turning off abstract and analytical metawords.” Voice,” says Butler, “is the embodiment in language of the contents of your unconscious.” I love that definition. I love that direction. Yet, when Butler also says “most journals are repositories of great swatches of abstraction and generalization and self-analysis and interpretation and all that bad stuff, I am jarred out of my dream state, my love affair with Butler’s ideas because I love to journal, self-analyze, and interpret, all that bad stuff.

I wonder, isn’t there a place for all of it? Isn’t Butler being a bit evangelical in his criticism of lit-crit and writing approached from the head? Must we really succumb to torture, as he says we must, in order to write good fiction?

I have not won any Pulitzer prizes and Butler has so it’s safe to say that what he has to say about writing good fiction should carry more weight than what I have to say. However, I am reminded of a quote I just came across yesterday by Michel d Montague in which he praised the habit or determination of having one’s life belong to oneself. I am determined to read and try out Butler’s recipe for writing good fiction. It sounds fascinating and fun, even if torturous (being raised Catholic, I am, perhaps, a bit prone to masochism). However, I will not be abandoning my journal-writing altogether, the stuff that flows from my head,so readily flows from there, even if it is junk. I feel a sort of fondness for my junk, almost a kind of warmth towards it. I don’t care for making “my mind the enemy (Butler, page 23). My mind, like my body and like my sensual experiences, is a gift and doesn’t deserve to be cast aside. Rather, I will learn to synthesize the two, mind and sensual experience, though I’m probably dreaming. But then that would mean I’m in the dream-state. Hurrah for me!


~ by maryaltermanwrites on March 29, 2012.

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