Take What You Need

A little widget told me it’s been a year since my last post.

During that time, I’d been on a quest to work my way through Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. It was more like 30 weeks. I didn’t finish that quest or continue to blog about it mostly because I realized I didn’t want to plan the crap out of my story.

And a first draft is really much more difficult than just writing an expanded outline. But I don’t have to tell you.

Unfortunately, I’m the type of person who believes that if I don’t write the way _______ writes, then I’ll never be a good writer. (I also believed everything my teachers told me because they were supposed to be the experts.)

So after finishing Wiesner’s book and realizing that wasn’t the process for me, I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (and it’s not as much a book written by him as it is a transcription of the writing classes he taught).

This book=polar opposite. His premise is that, to write literary fiction, you can’t write from your literal mind. You can’t logically, intellectually, consciously plot and plan. You must go into your writer’s trance and “dream” up your characters, scenes, and structure. You cannot write summary, generalization, or what teachers like to call “telling.” You must create yearning in your character and describe everything sensually, i.e. through the five senses. It is not okay to write something like, “As she walked into the party, she looked around and saw her ex-husband standing at the bar.” That is telling. There is no yearning or sensuality in that sentence. (Actually, you’re not even supposed to write, “She looked around.” Or, “She walked into the party,” for that matter.)

So for about six more months, I felt like crap because I couldn’t do what Butler was telling me to do–write first thing in the morning before doing anything else so I was closer to the dreamworld than the realworld, describe every scene sensually, stay away from summary and generalizations (there are some interesting chapters in which Butler deconstructs his students’ stories sentence by sentence to illustrate his point), and use an object to highlight this yearning which creates a metaphor which becomes a motif.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for him to tell you how to get into that writer’s trance, A.K.A. the flow, he doesn’t.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about this book. For instance, visualizing your story, your scenes, your characters from a dreamlike state (even those you will eventually throw out) and how to write using film techniques like shots, close-ups, cuts. (This chapter, using a brilliant example from Hemingway, explains why you should never write, “She looked around.”)

But the thing that gives me the biggest niggle is that Butler chooses to distinguish “literary” writing from “entertainment” writing in a not very nice way. He even goes so far as to call Stephen King a “non-artist.” He does this because he thinks “entertainment” writers have an agenda before they even start to write (as in, King wants to scare you). Butler says, “These writers know the effects ahead of time and so they construct an object to produce them.” Real artists, A.K.A. literary writers, don’t know ahead of time what they’re writing because the characters, their yearning, their metaphors and motifs happen organically.

Are we to believe, then, that “literature” (as opposed to “commercial” writing) should not be entertaining? Is this why so many people hate English? But what’s the point of reading fiction if not to be entertained in some way? To escape where you are, who you are, what you think, what you feel at this moment. Writing “entertainment” fiction does not mean the author, or the reader, cannot also explore the human condition in some deep, meaningful way. It just means something actually happens in the story.

To sum up, I think it’s important to not follow just one author’s method or process of writing. Even if it’s Stephen King’s process. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch interviews and TED Talks by writers about writing to give you ideas, not force you into thinking there is only one right way to be a good writer.

And by all means, use your sixth sense. If your gut gives you a niggle that the advice isn’t right for you, trust it. Take what you need and leave the rest.

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