Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on From Where You Dream

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research in the creative process, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

This time, the research process is a little more complicated because my access to my library’s print collection is limited and my access to print books through interlibrary loan is currently at zero, which means my best option is to purchase the books I’ve identified for my new study. Most of the books are reasonably affordable but, yeah. How fast this gets done may in large part depend on how often I can spend the money.

That said, I was able to get a hold of a copy of From Where You Dream pretty easily. Robert Olen Butler is credited as the author of the book but really the book is made up of transcriptions of some lectures that he gave as part of a fiction writing workshop that he taught. These transcriptions were captured and edited by Janet Burroway, the original author of Writing Fiction.

First, Butler is clearly an amazing lecturer. Even just reading his words on the page rather than hearing them out loud, his passion for what he does comes through and the eloquence with which he speaks about it is something that I can only aspire to as both an instructor and a writer. The book also includes some of the activities he used with his class (as well as some pieces that were the result of those activities). I think being a student in his class would have been an interesting challenge.

But it’s one that I personally probably wouldn’t have liked all that much. Which is to say, you can tell that this is an “academic” writing book and that these are lectures delivered in an academic setting because of the overwhelming focus on literary fiction. Butler is extremely dismissive of the value or quality of any type of fiction other than the type of fiction which he himself writes. That his students might aspire to write any other type of fiction doesn’t seem to enter into his instructional equation. If you’re someone who wants to learn about genre fiction, you would clearly be in the wrong class. Like, he calls out Stephen King and some others by name, calling them non-artists.

Ouch.

This focus on literary writing as the only type of writing to which a serious writer should aspire is far from unique to Butler. It’s something that I find frustrating about these types of books and about writing programs in general. Why is literary fiction treated as the only genre that matters?

Butler’s opinion seems to be that genre fiction doesn’t matter because genre writing is somehow dishonest. A main point of criticism Butler has of genre fiction is that non-artists (genre writers) know the effect they want to have and create their writing around the intended effect while artists (literary writers) use writing as a form of exploration without necessarily having an agenda in mind. “Real” artists achieve what he calls a dreamspace that allows them to access their unconscious and write more honest work.

About halfway through the book, Butler details a method of writing that’s worked well for him that he calls “dreamstorming” (rather than brainstorming). It involves a lot of 3×5 cards and shuffling and reshuffling of those cards in order to produce a story. Apparently this worked well for him when writing his own works and it does sound like an interesting method. What interested me about his discussion of this method, though, was that it’s here that Butler talks a little bit about research

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting a book that talks so much about “dreamspace” and “dreamstorming” and seems very much in the tradition of writers as divinely inspired geniuses to make any reference to research but not only does he acknowledge the role of research in his own creative process, he portrays it as something that enhances his work rather than interferes with it. Of the creative writing books I’ve studied up to this point, this is one of only two that talks about research in a positive manner. (The other is Bird by Bird.)

He gets pretty specific, too, considering that the passage on research only lasts about a page. (Plus another brief passage about thirty pages later.) He talks about his own experience researching the building of the first atomic bomb for his own work and how that led him to readings on nuclear physics and archeology. He also talks about doing in-depth research on a particular job that he wanted one of his characters to have so that he would know what the work of someone in a job like that was like. He recommends recording your research on index cards as part of your “dreamstorming” and then plugging them into the sequence where necessary.

All in all, I can see why this book is among the more popular fiction writing books among academic library collections. It fits very well with what I know (and what I remember) about how creative writing is talked about and taught in academic settings. No surprise since, after all, Butler delivered these lectures in an academic setting. But it’s a hopeful sign that Butler not only talks about research but does so in a positive and specific way. That’s very different from so many of the popular creative writing books I read for my earlier study.

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