Handout & Writing Exercise from Spring 2017 Workshop

Handout from Spring 2017 Writing Workshop


from a lecture by Robert Olen Butler

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.

…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…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, 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 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.

…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 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…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.



As a way of practicing the kind of writing that Robert Olen Butler was talking about in the Writing Boot Camp handout he recommends something called “Sense Journaling”.

Write these things down on your blank page:

Do NOT name emotions (“I was scared”)

Do NOT analyze or interpret (“It was a strange feeling”)

5 ways we express emotion:

• Signals in the body. Temperature, heartbeat, lungs, muscles, nerves, etc.

• Signals outside the body. Gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.

• Flashes of the past. Not analyses but what Butler calls “bursts of waking dream.”

• Flashes of the future. More dream bursts, but as premonitions of what might happen. Again, not analytical.

• Sensual selectivity. What we sense from the world around us, filtered by the emotions. (The same thing can look very different to two people.)

Think of an emotional event that you were involved in recently. Some situation that provoked strong emotions in you. Go back and really try to “be” in that situation again. Watch what is happening inside your body—your breath, your temperature, your muscles, your nerves. Notice what posture you’re in, the gestures your face is making. If you’re saying something, what is your tone of voice like. Then begin to notice any flashes of the past that may be occurring within you. Flashes of scenes, of emotions, of actions. Then can you experience any flashes of what might happen in the future. Then notice what you are paying attention to. What sensual experience are you noticing the most.

We are going to write about this event, but not name any emotion, using the 5 ways of expressing emotion, mentioned above--sense journaling.

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