Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Robert Olen Butler on fiction writing

Robert Olen Butler has always appealed to me for a variety of reasons.

First of all, as some of you may know, a few years ago I wrote a book on the importance of learning a foreign language. I am a language aficionado. Olen is also an accomplished language learner. He learned Vietnamese during the war years. (Olen's experiences in Vietnam color much of his fiction--especially his short stories.)

Butler also has some interesting things to say about the nature of fiction. For those who are intricately focused on the logical process of writing, some of his references to "the white-hot center" of a story, etc. may be a bit off-putting. Butler's central thesis is that you can't write from your consciousness---that fiction comes "from the place where we dream."  

Within the crowded field of the advice-to-aspiring-authors genre, Butler is less accessible than many others. He doesn't, for example, have much to say about the mechanics of outlining, plotting, etc.---all the things that standard fiction writing primers include as standard material. 

Nevertheless, Butler will give you some fresh insights regarding what fiction is---and how the idea for a new story should be discovered. If you haven't heard him before, your concepts of what fiction can accomplish will be expanded by what he has to say---- whether you are a writer or an avid reader (or both). 

I actually had my own Robert Olen Butler moment in 2010---when I discovered the grain of a story idea that eventually became Blood Flats

I was on a business trip, driving back from Alabama. The drive took me through Louisville, and the surrounding countryside of Kentucky. I looked out the window at some of the grittier parts of downtown Louisville, then later at the knob hill region around Bardstown. 

I had recently seen a documentary about the increase in meth trafficking in the American South. I imagined a conflict that involved meth trafficking, set in a little town among those knob hills. I also saw how some elements of such a story could take place in Louisville.

No---I didn't get the whole 184,000-word novel mentally completed on that trip; but I got the key ingredients of it: a recently discharged U.S. marine who comes home to rural Kentucky, only to find that his hometown has been taken over by meth traffickers.  The ex-marine (Lee McCabe) struggles not only with the criminals--but also with a sheriff who hates him, all because of a failed romantic relationship that took place more than two decades ago--before Lee McCabe was even born. 

Anyway, back to Robert Olen Butler: This video from YouTube is a long one; but it is worth your time. (Watch it in several sittings if you need to.)