Trying not to think about writing except when I’m actually writing

My very talented writer friend and former grad school colleague, Courtney Sender, was recently a guest at the New Orleans Literary Festival (chosen because she won a short story contest) and at the conference she heard Robert Olen Butler give this intensely revelatory lecture on writing that in many ways encapsulated a bunch of the things she and I have discussed in our conversations with each other.

She got so excited that she called me up and gave me some snippets of the talk: “Writing doesn’t come from your head. You can’t intellectualize it. Writing comes from the place that dreams come from”; “Peer criticism (i.e. the workshop) is vastly overrated; it’s the blind leading the potentially-sighted”; “The way you’re taught to read in an English class is anethema to a writer. A writer doesn’t write books that’re meant to be thought about and analyzed. They’re meant to be experienced. You want a book you can thrum to. A book that in some way resonates emotionally with you.”

There was a lot of stuff. I was sad to miss the talk. Luckily he wrote a book that’s nothing more than a collection of many of his lectures. I bought the book last weekend for the Kindle, and I tore through it.

In many ways the book is stuff I’d known before. Writing comes from the unconscious. Writing needs to involve deep yearning (what I call “the heart of longing”). But what interested me most was his emphasis on the specific. He reiterated that the core of writing is the image. In some way, writing involves a collection of images that encapsulate these deep yearnings which are often, in some way, ineffable or deeply internal.

This is something I’ve heard before, obviously (it’s the core of “show, don’t tell.”) But something about the way he presented the idea made it seem not only intuitive but necessary. The best chapter, in my opinion, was one where he had his students attempt to tell anecdotes from their lives, and during their tellings he constantly interrupted them and forced them to get more specific.

This is exactly the problem I’ve always had with my line writing. It’s not specific enough. And the scenes I create often don’t feel one hundred percent real. It’s not something I can actually see. Instead it’s more like shadow puppetry.

I’ve tried to remedy this, at times, by using things that’re drawn directly from my experience, but that’s tended not to work either. The scenes have come out feeling limp, misshapen, and wrong. And Butler has an answer for that too. He talks about how it’s better for writers to experience life…and then forget it. Because when you forget, your experiences get de-composed, and then you’re free to dig into your imagination and recompose them. When you do this, it feels, in many ways, like remembering. But it’s not. You’re making up something, but the thing you’re making up is something that feels incredibly real.

Anyway, the book was only of limited help when it came to matters like: “How do I capture the heart of yearning” (Butler says, until you’ve got hold of a character with real human yearning, you might as well not bother to write) and “How do I get into the dreamspace.” But, oddly, I’m not frustrated. One thing I’ve done in the two days since reading this book is start logging my dreams. Not in terms of broad outlines or narrative, but simply in terms of images. The moment I wake up I write down a bunch of words, usually nouns, that describe whatever I most remember seeing. Then, later, I transcribe it into my online journal, and I attempt to turn the words into a concrete image.

The results have been great! In my dreams I manage to catch hold of the heart of longing almost every time, whereas with my writing it’s more like 1 in 100 times. At least one of my dream images has turned into an actual story I’m writing, but I think the broader purpose of this is simply to train my brain to realize what the heart of longing looks like.

(What does help, though, is that I dream very vividly, and I often dream about people who aren’t me. In fact, many of my dreams take the form of movies I’m watching or books I’m reading, so the narrative comes premade. But whatever, I should hope that thirteen years of writing and nine years of selling professionally ought to have made me at least a slightly better dreamer.)

Anyway, I highly recommend this book. It’s the best book on writing I’ve ever read.