I need to make this clear first off: no matter where you are in your writing career, if you aspire to create literature, if you aspire to be an artist in the medium of language, if you aspire to create narratives of whatever length that arrive at the condition of art—there are fundamental truths about the artistic process to which you must attend.
In the nearly two decades I’ve been teaching this subject, I have read many thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers, and virtually all of them—virtually all of them—fail to show an intuitive command of the essentials of the process of fictional art.
Because of the creative writing pedagogy in this country, and because of the nature of this art form, and because of the medium you work with, and because of the rigors of artistic vision, and because of youth, and because no one has ever told you these things clearly, the great likelihood is that all of the fiction you’ve written is mortally flawed in terms of the essentials of process.
This, I think, is why my students have come to call this boot camp: because—and I will do this in as friendly and gentle and encouraging a way as I possibly can—what I have to say to you will indict virtually everything you’ve written.
It’s not going to be an easy message to hear. But I’m going to tell you right up front: before I wrote my first published novel, The Alleys of Eden, I wrote literally a million words of absolute dreck. Five god-awful novels, forty dreadful short stories, and a dozen truly terrible full-length plays. I made all those fatal errors of process I would bet my mortgage you’re making now. I want to help you get around that. But you’ve got to open up and listen to me about this. If you’re not prepared to do that, if you’re not prepared to open your sensibilities—and, incidentally, your minds—to what I’m going to tell you and to the implications for the work you have done and will do, then it is best that you and I part ways now. There are some folks in this room who will attest to the fact that it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be nerve-racking, it’s going to unsettle you. But I think they will also attest that the rewards are worth it.
You must, to be in here, have the highest aspirations for yourselves as writers—the desire to create works of fiction that will endure, that reflect and articulate the deepest truth about the human condition. If that is your aspiration, then this is where you belong. I will not blow you off. I will take your aspirations seriously, and I will demand that you take them seriously.
I always begin with something the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa once said. He said, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” To be an artist means never to avert your eyes—this is the absolute essential truth here. You’re going to be, and probably always have been, led to avert your eyes. But turning from that path is what it means to be an artist. You need courage, and that’s something I can’t teach you. I can teach you that you’ve got to have it.
What does an artist do?
As an artist, like everyone else on this planet, you encounter the world out there primarily in your bodies, moment to moment through your senses. Everything else derives from that. You are creatures of your senses. All that follows—all the stuff of the mind, all the analysis, all the rationalization, all the abstracting and interpreting—follows upon that point of contact, in the moment, through your senses.
If you live in the moment, through your senses, your first impression certainly will be that at the heart of things is chaos. God knows we had a very clear example of that in September of 2001. You can be sitting on the ninetieth floor of the World Trade Center on a beautiful late summer morning, smelling your Starbucks coffee, glad they brewed Sumatra today, and someone with visions of seventy-two virgins waiting for him in heaven flies a United Airlines jet through your window. That is a paradigm of the human condition.
Artists are intensely aware of the chaos implied by the moment-to-moment sensual experience of human beings on this planet. But they also, paradoxically, have an intuition that behind the chaos there is meaning; behind the flux of moment-to-moment experience there is a deep and abiding order.
The artist shares her intuition of the world’s order with the philosophers, the theologians, the scientists, the psychoanalysts—there are lots of people who believe there is order in the universe—but those others embrace the understanding and expression of that order through abstractions, through ideas, through analytical thought. The artist is deeply uncomfortable with those modes of understanding and expression. The theologians have their dogma and the philosophers their theories and the scientists their scientific principles and the psychoanalysts their Jungian or Freudian insights—but to those modes of expression and understanding the artist says, “That doesn’t make sense to me. Those are not the terms in which I intuit the world.” The artist cannot understand or access her vision of the world in any of those ways. 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. Only in this way, by shaping and ordering experience into an art object, is the artist able to express her deep intuition of order.
There’s an interesting precedent for this idea—and what I’m about to observe has no intended religious message. A very influential person in Western and world culture taught almost exclusively in one way: only by parable, by telling stories. “Without a parable he spake not unto them.” He asked questions similar to the ones I just suggested artists ask: What is the abiding universal human condition? What is this all about here on planet Earth? And his answer was, There was a guy who owned a vineyard and he had a son . . . and so forth. He told stories. That’s what was clearly recorded in the books written closest to the time in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. Jesus said, emphatically, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” He did not say, “He that hath a brain to think, let him think.” It’s through the ear. By means of a story.
The great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis said, ‘man, you don’t play what you know, you play what you hear.” Davis had very strong political ideas—but he was an artist; he knew that you don’t make music from ideas.
Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. 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.
Does this make sense? Do you understand what I’m saying? If you want to think your way into your fiction, if you think you can analyze your way into a work of art, we’re going to be totally at odds philosophically about what art is and where it comes from. But if you have this aspiration and an open sensibility, and if what I’m saying makes sense, then you have to tell your mind to back the hell off. It’s another place in yourself entirely where you must look to create a work of art. And I’ll wager that virtually everything you’ve written so far has come from your head.
You know, it’s easy to get caught up in the ambition of being a writer. It’s easy to get caught up in loving literature and wishing to be the person on the dust jacket. This ambition, as innocent-seeming as it is, can very easily muscle out your deeper, more delicate, more difficult ambitions. It can muscle them out in favor of: I want to get published, I want to be famous, I want to win a prize. Or even in the terms: I want to be an artist. I said earlier, “If you aspire to create art.” Please understand that’s different from “I want to be a great artist.” And even “I want to create art” is a bit of a dangerous ambition. What I want to nurture in you is the impulse: “I’m ravished by sensual experience. I yearn to take life in. My God! I’ve got this sense that the world has meaning. Things roil around in my dream space, and I’ve got to figure out how to make art objects of them.” That’s really the best ambition, to be hungry for sensual experience in your life. Ravenous. Artists are not intellectuals. We are sensualists. The objects we create are sensual objects, and the way you’ll know that you’re writing from your head is that you’ll look at your story and find it full of abstraction and generalization and summary and analysis and interpretation. These modes of discourse will be prevalent in works that are written from the head. Even if you can by force of will insert some nicely observed sense details into the work, you’ll find the work moving toward analysis and description and generalization and abstraction when, in fact, in the work of art the most important moments are the most sensual of all, the most in the moment.
Mies van der Rohe said that God is in the details. Let’s substitute: the human condition resides in the details, the sense details.
The primary point of contact for the reader is going to be an emotional one, because emotions reside in the senses. What we do with emotions after that, to protect ourselves in the world, is a different thing; but emotions are experienced in the senses and therefore are best expressed in fiction through the senses.
Emotions are also basically experienced, and therefore expressed in fiction, in five ways. First, we have a sensual reaction inside our body—temperature, heartbeat, muscle reaction, neural change.
Second, there is a sensual response that sends signals outside of our body—posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, and so forth.
Third, we have, as an experience of emotion, flashes of the past. Moments of reference in our past come back to us in our consciousness, not as ideas or analyses about the past, but as little vivid bursts of waking dream; they come back as images, sense impressions.
The fourth way we experience emotion and can therefore express it in fiction is that there are flashes of the future, similar to flashes of the past, but of something that has not yet happened or that may happen, something we desire or fear or otherwise anticipate. Those also come to us as images, like bursts of waking dreams.
And finally—this is important for the fiction writer—we experience what I would call sensual selectivity. At any given moment we, and therefore our characters, are surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sensual cues. But in that moment only a very small number of those sensual cues will impinge on our consciousness. Now, what makes that selection for us? Well, our emotions do.
Henry James said that “landscape is character,” and this could well be what he meant. Our personalities, our emotions, are expressed in response to the sensual cues around us. We look at the landscape and what we see out there is our deepest emotional inner selves. This is at the heart of a work of art.
Why is this sensual center of our art so hard for us to get at? Miles Davis, if he were a writer, probably would struggle with the same problems I struggled with and that you’re probably struggling with now. It’s easy for him to say “you don’t play what you know, you play what you hear,” because his medium is entirely sensual, inescapably so. The sound that comes out of his horn is irreducibly sensual. Every other art form is irreducibly sensual. Dancers move, composers work with sound, painters with color; even abstract art isn’t abstract at all—it’s color and form. You stand in front of a Barnett Newman painting, and whatever may have been in his brain about artistic theory, what confronts you is a massive experience of color and a delicate experience of texture.
But you folks have it really difficult. No one in my position in any of the other arts has to say the things I say. Why? Because your medium is language, and language is not innately sensual. Language, in fact, is much more often used in nonsensual ways. Look at the paradox of this evening. I am inveighing against abstraction, generalization, and summary and analysis and interpretation in what terms? Abstract, general, analytical, and interpretive. Am I not? Well, that’s the nature of human beings. There are things we have to express in this way.
Now, I’ve heard no gasps of recognition yet, but let me assume that some of you are thinking, Of course, this makes sense. Oh boy oh boy! If so, you and I are still going to have to be patient, because—you know what?—your understanding is still here in your head, and it’s going to take a while to make all this part of your process.
If I had me to talk to me back when, I might not have had to write a million dreadful words. If I’d caught me at the right moment—and in the right spirit—I might have had to write only a quarter of a million—maybe not so many as that if I’d really listened. You might ask, why did he write five terrible novels? How many terrible novels can you write? The answer is that I had no idea how badly I was writing. None. And my ability to continue working through a million words was so rooted in self-deception that I might not have been able to hear this message. So those are the things you may have to sort through, too.
The special problem here is that the artistic medium of fiction writers—language—is not innately sensual. The medium is unforgiving whenever we look for it in our minds. Some visual artists do a lot of conceptualizing and still end up creating terrific works of art. They are able to do so because once they get out there in front of their canvases or their blocks of granite, they have to leave those ideas behind. The medium itself won’t let them think.
Literature—language, fiction—does not as a medium force you to leave your ideas behind. And if you think it into being, if you will a story into being, by God, it’s going to show.
Why is it so tough to get past that? Why does Kurosawa say that the essence of being an artist is that you can’t avert your eyes? Why avert them? We still haven’t quite made that connection. If the artist sees the chaos of experience and feels order behind it and creates objects to express that order, surely that is reassuring, right? Well, at some point maybe. But what do you have to do first? And why is it so hard? This is why—and this is why virtually all inexperienced writers end up in their heads instead of the unconscious: because the unconscious is scary as hell. It is hell for many of us.
If I say art doesn’t come from the mind, it comes from the place where you dream, you may say, “Well, I wake up screaming in the night. I don’t want to go into my dreams, thank you very much. I don’t want to go into that white-hot center; I’ve spent my life staying out of there. That’s why I’m sitting in this classroom, why I was able to draw a comb through my hair this morning. Because I haven’t gone there, I don’t go there. I’ve got lots of ways of staying out of there.” And you know what? You still need those ways twenty-one or twenty-two hours a day. 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 go 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.
I fight this battle every day. Janet fights this battle every day. Every artist in the world fights this battle every day. To go to a scary place that makes some other part of you say: What are you doing? No. Just no. No. No. Your hands are poised over the keyboard, and that voice says, Look at your fingernails; they need clipping. And when the voice has got you in the bathroom: Look at the toilet; it needs cleaning. And you say, Yes! Anything, anything but to go back and face this stuff.
Not only that. That voice wants to draw you up into your head. And you know what that head has been for you all your life? Everyone in this room, I’m sure, has been significantly smarter in all kinds of ways than the people around you. You’ve had your own view of things, and you haven’t really followed the crowd, because you’re a little too smart for that—or way too smart—and you see things in a different way. You’re isolated. And in order to get through childhood and puberty and adolescence and young adulthood, broken relationships and a marriage or two, or four—you have identified with your mind. I’m smart, I’m smarter than they are. There’s a part of your mind you’ve been rewarded for all through school, and that is your literal memory. You’ll be rewarded for it again in classrooms in this same program. 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. That’s not an easy message to take.
Furthermore, you’ve got this self-conscious metavoice going all the time. I do, and I’m sure a lot of you do, too. You sit quietly and your metavoice is talking to you in your head. “Well, here I’m sitting,” it says. And even, “OK, maybe I shouldn’t think so much now. That sounds like it’s something I probably should try, to see if I can do that.” These words are going through your head, right? This is going on all the time; there’s all this analytical garbage running through your mind. This self-conscious metavoice; it’s a voice about the voice. It’s like talking about my own consciousness.
This is why Catholics and Muslims have repetitive, predetermined prayers, why the Hindus and the Zen Buddhists and the Transcendental Meditationalists have their mantras. Because you repeat these repetitive predetermined prayers enough and they lose their meaning. So these words that have no rational meaning are falling through your mind. And what happens? The analytic flow stops. You prolong the moment of no voice in your head, and it induces a kind of spiritual high. The religions give this to you as a way to live, a way to get in touch with God.
Well, the artist has got to find a way to do something similar, although it cannot be—and this is harder for you—through repetitive, predetermined bits of text. Nevertheless, the only way to create a work of literary art is to stop that voice. Your total attention needs to be on the sensual flow of experience from the unconscious.
One of the ways of understanding your unconscious is by realizing that in order to get into it you have to actually stop that garbagey analytical reflex voice in your head and induce a kind of trance state. Religious trances are quite common. Well, there’s a trance state also that the artist must induce in herself in order to create a work of art. You have to let go of that comforting, distancing voice, you have to then descend into that deep dream space of yours, and that will result in a kind of superconcentration.
Psychologists call it the “flow state,” being in the flow. Athletes call it being “in the zone.”
The athlete’s zone and the artist’s creative trance have a great deal in common. When I was teaching in Louisiana, a friend of mine was assistant athletic director at LSU. His name was Greg LeFleur, and he was once an excellent tight end for the then St. Louis Cardinals NFL football team. Greg and I at some point came to understand that what he did and what I do have this need for a trancelike state in common.
How did Greg take off at full speed, run twenty-five, thirty yards down the field while behind him his quarterbackvI think it was Jim Hart—launched this odd-shaped object into the air—and Greg is running full tilt down the field and two linebackers are converging on him to crush the life out of his body, and Greg glances over his shoulder and throws his body out, extends his hands, and this object settles gently under his fingertips and he holds it even as he falls to the ground and the linebackers fall on top of him. How did he do that?
Well, I tell you how you don’t do it and that’s by thinking about it. Any athlete will tell you. Jackie Stewart, the great race car driver, said in his autobiography that when you drive a car really fast and really well, you don’t have a sensation of speed at all; things slow down around you, you can count the bricks on the wall at the next turn. Baseball players, when they are batting and in a streak, say they can count the stitches on the ball. They are in the zone, and that means they are not thinking at all. They call it muscle memory. But for you, it’s not muscle memory; it’s dream space, it’s sense memory. It is not literal memory, the thing that’s made you good at school.
If the athlete begins to send the process into his head, he goes into a slump. He misses the basket, he misses that turn. Lights out. He drops the ball. I think, by the way, that’s why athletes are so superstitious. Because if you believe that your current batting streak depends on wearing a pair of dirty socks, you’re less likely to think it has to do with your technique. If it’s technique, you think about it. If it’s your socks, it’s not rational. 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.
Now, there’s one big difference between the athlete’s zone and the artist’s zone. And this is another way of explaining the challenge of Kurosawa’s observation. Let’s look at Michael Jordan in his later prime—let’s say his last season with the Bulls, when they once again won the world championship. When Michael received a pass at the top of the key in full flight and he left the ground, he defied gravity, floated through the air, let that ball roll off his fingertips and into the basket. Tongue unconsciously extended. When he did that, he had to be in the zone. He could not be thinking about what he was doing. But to make his zone exactly analogous to the art zone, you have to add this: every time he shoots, in order to make a basket Michael Jordan would have to confront, without flinching, the moment when his father’s chest was blown apart by the shotgun held by his kidnapper. You know that happened in Michael Jordan’s life. Well, Michael would have to confront that in order to make a basket every time. Without flinching. Now his zone is equal to the artist’s zone. And now you understand the challenge of being an artist.
©2005 by Robert Olen Butler and Janet Burroway. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.