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Writing Inside Out

A Discussion of From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butleryoga

Writing from the unconscious and from an emotional base is not a new concept. In his 1930-something book on the craft of writing entitled Storyweaving, Francis Vivian posits that a writer should have all the knowledge of the story in his unconscious before the actual act of writing begins. That’s the theory – the practice however can be a slippery process altogether.

What Butler suggests is that if you’re writing a short story you should know the beginning the middle and the end and then you must sit down and meditate the entire story. You allow your mind to write the story before the fingers do.

If I don’t write down an idea when it springs to mind, it slips through the mesh of saggy brain tissue and I ‘m not limber enough to retrieve it. I didn’t have confidence in my retentive memory**, so I jotted down my idea about the character, what she did for a living and what item was going to connect her and the story together. Then, a firm believer in back-up – I put new batteries in my voice recorder, lay back in a recliner and meditated myself into a blissful haze and finally drifted into the story ‘world’. As ideas came, I whispered them into the recorder balancing on my chest and in about half an hour I’d spoken the story from start to finish.

I was so inspired I dashed to the keyboard and typed out the short story in one session – without referring once to the recording. I think there may be things that I didn’t include that I’d verbalised, and things that I included that hadn’t featured during the meditation. But that’s not the point really; the big bonus for me was that I succeeded in surrendering control – oh boy that’s a biggie for me, didn’t ever think it was, but looking back at all my previous short stories and articles it clearly is. It seemed like I wrote like a first-time mom who took each toddling idea and yanked it up by the arm onto the stable path and forced it down the road whether there was anything there that was good for it or not; ouch, I won’t be doing that again.

By relinquishing control the benefits were as follows: I achieved a story with better flow; the calm meditative state suggested a natural trajectory and found the natural fit for the kernel of the story, thus the story doesn’t feel at all contrived. Images, because they were felt – sensationalised – were pure and powerful and rendered a richer story.

As a writer with ten years experience, I was afraid that my stories were starting to get stale, so it’s fabulous to feel energised and excited again about a craft in which I’ve invested so much of my life.

**This retentive memory should not be confused with Robert Olen Butler’s opinions on literal memory. He proposes that literal memory is no place from where to draw ideas; he believes that it gets in the way of creativity.

What useful techniques have you discovered or read about? Please feel free to share them here – crazy, pedantic, etc., we want to hear about them and try them out.