Thursday, August 09, 2007

Your Own Brand of Sumo

Near the end of Robert Olen Butler's FROM WHERE YOU DREAM: THE PROCESS OF WRITING FICTION, he tells his workshop students:

...when sumo wrestlers are interviewed, they always say the same thing--they barely move their lips--no matter what they're asked, it all boils down to 'I'm going to do my brand of sumo, and I'm going to do my best.' That's it, folks. That's the lesson of the universe.

This, to me, was the book's only big piece of "universal" writing advice; the rest of it focuses on Butler's particular brand of sumo, which (as the subtitle promises) is more about process than analysis, more about heart than head.

Butler's argument, distilled from lectures by editor Janet Burroway, is that fiction can only begin to work if it is coming from the author's unconscious, or "white-hot center." Toward that end, he gives his own method of accessing the unconscious, which involves finding the emotional center of an event--the yearning--then, without naming emotions, exploring concrete sensual details, with a filmic eye.

He shares his own process, even more specifically, outlining his index card methodology. His first step in writing a novel is to sit and daydream out the scenes, without writing them, then jot the basics of each scene on a notecard. Then he plays with the order of the cards, dreams new scenes as necessary. Then he writes the scenes, always in order.

You know me, I always love a peek under the hood. I'm a process junkie, and it's helpful to find more tools for the box. His approach is like method acting: story driven by moment-to-moment motivations, use of sense memory. But, I believe (like many actors have told me), the Method is potentially dangerous if turned into a religion.

The first two sections of the book are, like the good parts of religion, invigorating and inspiring. The first, "The Lectures," gives the basic foundation of Butler's approach to fiction, the writer's "trance" to access the unconscious, the "composting" of concrete memory for future stories. (He suggests journaling in concrete images, not analytic narrative, and you know I love that.) And the second section, "The Workshop," is transcripts of his interaction with students, in which he literally pulls sense details out of them, and stops them when they analyze. It reminds me of Sandy Meisner's book for actors, the next best thing to being in a class. (And by the way, writers can benefit from Meisner's book too.)

But the third section of Butler's book is where the religion-of-the-dreamstate turns dangerous, in my view. It contains full text of three early-draft student stories, followed by Butler's in-class analysis of them. And he judges the stories on whether or not they appear to come from the unconscious. (Like an acting teacher's judgment of "indicating" vs. "living" emotion, if you will.) He encourages students to find moments of "harmonic resonance" in peer work, where they "thrum" with the characters. On the one hand, this is refreshing as hell--you mean we don't have to analyze the POV and rising action crap? And I must admit, in my own work, I've found the most helpful critiques are often simply "I'm feeling _____ now," jotted in the margins of the manuscript.

But writers are not actors. They are not the medium for the finished work. We get the privilege of stepping away and letting the work have a life of its own. Butler the teacher-critic pronounces judgments like this: Story A was written from the analytic mind (GONG!), Story B was written from the unconscious (DING! DING! DING!). And while I agree with his assessment of the success/nonsuccess of these three stories, I find it presumptuous to guess at the writer's state of mind during composition, or to judge the purity of one thinking process over another.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, on her awesome radio show, often asks her guests questions like, "Do you write your sentences over and over, or do they just come out that way?" (I paraphrase, apologies.) More often, the guest claims to bang on the work until they get it right. I would argue that the presence or absence of the writer's dreamstate is not necessarily evident in the results. For many writers I admire, it's more trial and error than flow (what Butler calls being in "The Zone").

So my wishy washy recommendation is read this book for the tools and inspiration (inspired about 30 pages out of me! Thanks ROB!), but try not to drink the Kool-Aid. It could be a recipe for writer's block and/or quitting altogether. Sometimes battling with a problematic story is worth it. Sometimes early readers find cool emotions in the work that you didn't feel or intend, and this is a raw material you have authored that you can work with. It's okay to make your own clay. It may take longer, being a "draft writer," as Butler puts it, but so be it. The Annie Lamott-esque "shitty first drafts" need not be composted.

What do you guys think? Can you fake the soul of a story with technique, and if so, is the story any less genuine? Can you make readers "thrum" without "thrumming" yourself? Or, is finding your resonant subject matter the main battle, and the technique thing secondary? Anyone else have a response to this book?


Michael Rigg said...

Anne, while I haven't read the book (but may, it sounds interesting), I believe technique is only secondary to the soul. I can actually 'feel' my writing improve, and my critics reflect it, when I've composed with that 'in the zone' vibration... when every sense is alive and experiencing what your mind is creating. I can't say more without taking up more space than your original post, but I'd say - in short - that I fly with the thrum.

Anne said...

The thrum feels good. I'm feeling it lately, so I can't complain. Good to meet you, Michael!