Wednesday, October 5, 2016

61 Books: #49

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–48 are below this post.

49. Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (2005) (10/5/16)
This book derives from lectures Butler gave in 2001 and 2002, in classes that Janet Burroway attended, made copious notes of and then recorded, and finally turned into the twelve chapters presented here. It's a rich discussion of, not so much craft, but process. As Burroway says in her introduction, Butler's "self-declared obsessions have to do with the descent into the dreamspace of the unconscious in order to discover the yearning that is at the center of every person and therefore of every character, and with the moment-to-moment sensual experiencing of that character's story. . . . Butler's 'dangerous system' of novel construction . . . allows the simultaneous emergence of structure, character, and motif."

The book is in three parts. The first, "The Lectures," comprises five chapters. In "Boot Camp," Butler focuses on how emotions are experienced through the senses—"the special problem here [being] that the artistic medium of fiction writers—language—is not innately sensual." In "The Zone," he suggests ways to enter the creative zone of the unconscious (these basically have to do with continuity—writing every day—and consistency—writing every day at the same time, in the same, carefully prepared place, say). "Yearning" addresses what Butler considers the keystone of successful fiction. In this chapter, he analyzes four passages from works that he admires, which is most useful. (Indeed, this book is especially valuable for its many thorough examples.) "Cinema of the Mind" covers—you got it—cinematic techniques, and how they translate into written language. One of his examples is from Dickens's Great Expectations, the opening, and I have to say, his discussion of that passage made me want to rush out and buy that book and get to know Dickens better. (I've barely read him; in fact, I think GE is the only book of his I have read, but that was over forty years ago.) And in "A Writer Prepares," Butler describes his own process of "dreamstorming." As he explains in a 2015 interview, using this system "I can free-associatively anticipate a wide range of possible paths for the book. Early in the process, I go into the zone of my creativity and make a long, long list of possible scenes in the book. These scenes are recorded very succinctly—no more than a dozen words—and I make no attempt at this stage to arrange them or structure them or even to resolve incompatibilities. Then I transfer these to index cards—one scene per card—and I lay out possible sequences. But those are done and redone numerous times, even during the writing of the book, and they never ossify into an outline."

Part 2 is "The Workshop," comprising four chapters: "Reading, Lit Crit, and the Workshop," also including comments on revision; "The Bad Story," in which Butler shares one of his own early, bad stories and compares it to a many-years-later story using the same material that he considers successful—and why; "The Anecdote Exercise," which is just that: an exercise in which an off-the-cuff anecdote is redrawn literarily (and in which he demonstrates just how hard that is to do, using four students as guinea pigs); and "The Written Exercise," where he presents a coached writing exercise in seven stages, as well as three of the students' results. 

And part 3, "The Stories, Analyzed," presents three student stories along with discussion. As I said above, the examples and analysis are very informative. 

All in all, an excellent book. I read it on the Kindle and highlighted liberally, but this is one of those books I think I'd rather have had as a real book: I'd have flagged it liberally. But no matter the format, I will be going back into this one and using some of Butler's tips and exercises, for sure. 

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