Friday, July 29, 2005

On the Dynamics of Desire.

"As any Buddhist will tell you, you cannot exist as a human being on this planet for thirty seconds without desiring something."

That quote is from Where You Dream, a new book on the process of writing fiction by Robert Olen Butler, edited and with an introduction by Janet Burroway.

Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, teaches writing at Florida State University. His new book is an outstanding guide to writing fiction, especially for writers who fear their stories may come too much from their heads and not enough from their hearts.

It's Butler's belief that the most compelling stories come only when you're able to write from that place where you dream--your unconscious.

And that to write from that place requires not thinking but feeling--a deep emotional understanding of your character's moment to moment sensory experience.

Feeling, feeling, feeling--that's the key, according to Butler, to dropping into the unconscious zone.

But a story is more than a dream, more than a reproduction of sensory experience. Butler suggests that it's the embodiment of desire.

And the most common problem that he sees in stories--both unpublished and published--is this lack of desire.

He calls this problem in stories the "deficit of desire" and suggests that, basically, without desire, without a character's deep yearning, there is no story.

Here's Butler in his own words:

"We yearn. We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something. And fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning." (page 40.)

And this:

"Yearning is always part of fictional character. In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire. It's the dynamics of desire that is the heart of narrative and plot." (p. 40)

Butler devotes a full chapter to yearning.

But the notion of yearning flows through the entire book since, in Butler's view, yearning is the core around which a story's details are built, the driving force of the story's metaphors and language, not just the character's actions.

Butler's one of the best writing teachers around, and he's had the good fortune to have another amazing writing teacher, Janet Burroway (whose Writing Fiction is a classic text), help him shape his lectures into this book.

With it, you can attend his classes without ever leaving home.

Take a look and let us know what you think.

1 comment:

Jude said...

I just finished reading From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler! I, too, thought it was an excellent source for writers. I took many notes. He said, "Emotions reside in the senses and are therefore best expressed through the senses." This reminded me of a writing exercise I came across some time ago, I forget from where, challenging the writer to take the scene you are trying to write and write it six times. The first time you use only the sense of sight. The second time only the sense of sound. Third time, only the sense of taste; fourth time only the sense of smell; the fifth time only the sense of touch. The sixth time you write your scene you choose the strongest images from each of the first five writings and combine them into your sixth scene. If you can't use all five, that's okay. The most important thing is to use as many as you can and still make the scene sound natural, not like a list of sensory impressions. I tried this and I was quite amazed at the end result. Anyway, Butler goes on to say that "out of all the hundreds of sensual cues that surround us, only a small number will impinge on our consciousness. Our emotions make the selections." Which reminds me of another writing exercise probably every one has heard about from John Gardner in The Art of Fiction: "Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder." or: "Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death." And finally, "Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one." As you will see if you try these exercises, emotions definitely will make the sensory selections. Well, this is a long blog, so I'll save some of my other comments for another time, but I would highly recommend this book.