From Where You Dream: The process of writing fiction
Robert Olen Butler

The artist is comfortable only with going back to the way in which the chaos is first encountered – that is, moment to moment through the senses. Then, selecting from that sensual moment-to-moment experience, picking out bits and pieces of it, reshaping it, she recombines it into an object that a reader in turn encounters as if it were experience itself: a record of moment-to-moment sensual experience, an encounter as direct as those we have with life itself. p. 12

Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you. p. 13

But this is the tough part: for those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot place – it can’t be white-hot and dark at the same time, but I don’t care – that paradox, live with it – whatever scared the hell out of you down there – and there’s plenty – you have to got in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art – even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily. p. 18

You remember things; you can talk these things back and command details. You know literature. You’ve always found your self-worth there, and what I’m telling you is that literal memory is your enemy. It’s been a large part of your identity all your life, and that part is going to want to drag you down, to destroy the things you create. p. 19

What superstitions do for the athlete is to irrationalize. and that’s what you have to do as a writer; you have to irrationalize yourself somehow. p. 22

Once you are engaged in writing a piece of fiction from your unconscious, it is crucial that you write every day, because the nature of this place where you go is such that’s very difficult to find your way in. It’s pure torture. But even though it’s terrible getting in, once you’re in, if you keep going back every day, though it’s still always daunting and difficult and scary, it’s not nearly so much so. You may find – this is dangerous, but you may find – that you can take a day off every six or seven days. When you do you’ll be grumpy and out of sorts and things will be uncomfortable, but after a day you can go back in. But you take two days off and you’re on very thing ice. If you let three or four days go by it’s as if you’ve never written a word in your entire life. That doorway closes and seals itself up; you don’t even know what part of the wall that door’s in anymore. I don’t care how much you’ve written in your life; those defenses are strong and they won’t let you go there. p. 24-5

The crucial awareness you must keep is this: do not will the work. Do not write until it’s coming from your unconscious. If you have the itch to write before inspiration has visited you, spend that time meditating in your unconscious. p. 28

Those of you who don’t have trouble with insomnia, think about how you go to sleep. You lie down and all that garbage just turns off. Suddenly an image comes, and another, and boy, then you’re gone. And that’s how you write. p. 31

Rewriting is redreaming. Rewriting is redreaming until it all thrums. p. 38

Fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning. p. 40

The first epiphany comes very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth. p. 41

The difference between the desires expressed in entertainment fiction and literary fiction is only a difference of level. Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other. p. 41

Once you have that link to your character’s yearning, only then does the real work of literary fiction begin. p. 43

You must be masters of the sensual moment. p. 164

No abstraction, no generalization, no summary, no analysis, no interpretation. p. 165.

“Don’t read about the period you’re researching, read in the period… magazine, memoirs, letters that were written in that period, and take no notes. Because when you come to write the thing, if you’ve taken notes you think you have to use them, whereas if you’ve immersed yourself in the period, what you need will come to you.” Mary Lee Settle. p. 206

What we need always to be in search of is the way in which a character’s yearning is manifested. Stories are driven forward by causality. All plot comes from the character’s trying to get something, to achieve something, wanting, desiring, longing for something. The complications ensue from the drive of those yearnings and the attempt to get around the impediments and difficulties that thwart desire. p. 222

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