Where the Art of Writing Comes From

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. – Robert Olen Butler

About twenty years ago while attending the poetry workshop at the writers conference at Port Townsend, Washington, I had a chance to talk to Robert Olen Butler who was teaching the fiction workshop. While sitting on the grassy knoll above the Puget Sound, he spoke of his time in Vietnam, when he served as military attache in Saigon, where he became fluent in the language. He loved the Vietnamese and would sit on a stoop in the middle of the night engaged in conversation.

At the time of the conference, though he had a reputation as a fine writer and a dedicated teacher, all his books were out of print. A few months later, his new collection of short stories, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain won the Pulitzer Prize. The stories, which all involve characters that are Vietnamese, reflect the importance the people and the culture played in Butler’s life and imagination.

Recently I came upon a book of his, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, in which he really emphasizes the importance of writing from the unconscious, the dream mind. He does a beautiful job of describing the difficulties involved as well as the importance of letting go of your linear mind and engaging your sensory and sensual experiences in order to fully tap the creative process.

In my own writing classes I start with a short meditation designed to quiet the mind and drop us all down into the heart mind, making it easier to access the imagination and creative flow. We then work with exercises to help in letting go, trusting the process and allowing what wants to be born out of the well of the subconscious to flow out on to the page.

Another key element I learned from Butler in a talk he gave at the conference, is that good writing was full of moment by moment sensual detail. Focusing on the felt sense of an experience, learning to let go and then writing about things that are really important to you are key ingredients in developing the art of writing.

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