Review of “From Where You Dream”

Robert Olen Butler

Grove Press (March 2005, 288 pages)

Review by Erin Pennington


Achieving Thrum: An Analysis of Robert Olen Butler’s Method-writing Approach

           In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler delivers on his promise to render a semester-long fiction course in two hundred and sixty nine pages. The book is comprised of lectures to his students at Florida State University. Through accessible and illustrative examples, Butler pushes those writers willing to open themselves to his method to be brave, to look ahead and not to avert their eyes. Instead of shying away from the difficulties of transcendent writing which culminate in writing from one’s “head,” he prods writers to enter their “dreamspace.”  This work furthers the tried-but-true mantra of most fiction writing workshops, “show, don’t tell,” scaffolding a concrete framework upon which budding or established writers can build and integrate fresh meaning. By the finish, the reader is hastened to the conclusion that a piece of writing is nothing less than a work of art, whose structure must grow organically rather than resulting from an end-run process, externally embossed by the unbending stamp of intellect. While From Where You Dream was published in 2005, Butler’s suggestions that writers envision themselves as sensualists rather than intellectuals and conduct the work of writing in keeping with this self-conception remains timely for any writer, budding or practiced.

           As outlined in the introduction by acclaimed fiction writer Janet Burroway, who herself was a student of Butler, the author began his career as an actor. He was trained in the “Stanislavsky Method” which rests on two principles: “that the actor’s body is an instrument that must be supple, strong, and prepared; and that craft is always secondary to the truth of emotional connection” (Butler 2). These principles correspond to Butler’s instruction regarding the dreaming process of writing in that a writer’s imagination must be at once strong and malleable, able to translate sensory observances and experience into typeset, and that it is within the unconscious that a writer must explore (as opposed to relying upon her intelligence). Intelligent writing (in the sense that it emanates from the head as opposed to from the heart) is the road to fictional doom because in its stiffness and presumption it supplants the opportunity for genuine engagement with the human emotional experience. Intelligent writing turns what should be an aesthetic experience into an analytical one. A parallel might be drawn for those who have taken vocal training—an advancing student learns that the sound from her “head” (a lighter sound, supported by the singer’s breath) may not be as resounding as her “chest voice,” (supported by the diaphragm, which should soulfully emerge from deeper within).

           Butler begins by making his case to the doubting Thomases, knowing that his method is one which will cause many writers to raise their hackles. He boldly states in his first chapter, “Boot Camp,” that “the great likelihood is that all the fiction you’ve written is mortally flawed in terms of the essentials of process” (Butler 9). Such a statement could cause a writer to recoil. Further resistance could result from such value-laden comments as, “That’s really the best ambition, to be hungry for sensual experience in your life” (Butler 14). However, Butler practices what he preaches by “showing, not telling” the writer what he means through demonstrative examples of his own and his students’ work. Through this approach, he slowly and methodically disarms the reader until, enfin, the reader is shaking her head with the knowledge that though this information is going to require a complete overhaul in her approach to writing, Butler is correct.

           Language is merely a tool of translation for our senses and thus inherently falls short of capturing the rich essence of sensory experience. However, Butler proffers that “emotions reside in the senses” (Butler 14), and it is thus to the senses we must retreat and from which we must borrow if we are to attempt to overcome the bounds of the written word. He says that emotions are experienced, and thereby expressed in fiction, in five ways:

           First . . . inside our body—temperature, heartbeat, muscle reaction, neural change. Second . . . outside our body—posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice . . . Third, we have . . . 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 [which would constitute writing from our heads], but as little vivid bursts of waking dream; they come back to us as images, sense impressions. The fourth way . . . [is as] 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 . . . Finally . . . we experience . . . 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 (Butler 15).

           Butler suggests that, for the purposes of writing fiction, one should express oneself only in these five ways.

           If we buy that there is merit in this sensory approach, how exactly is it that we plunge headlong into our senses? First, we must understand that delving into our unconscious is “scary as hell. It is hell for many of us” (Butler 18). However, rather than letting our fear paralyze us, we must enter into what Butler terms “the zone.” Entering the zone is similar to achieving the “flow state” with which many writers are doubtless familiar. Butler likens being in the zone to relinquishing oneself to the “muscle memory” upon which athletes are trained to rely. If athletes over-think their playing, or rely on their heads, they will miss the basket or flub the play. Similarly, if not writing from within the transcendent state of the zone, a writer subjects herself to the abstractions, generalizations and summaries which are the inevitable result of over-thinking. Practical suggestions on how to enter one’s zone or dreamspace include writing every day (because it is difficult to get “in” and once you’re “in,” it is not nearly so difficult to continue), surrounding oneself by a location or with objects that promote a return to the dreamspace and are associated only with writing fiction and, a frightening prospect for many, turning oneself into a morning person (since this transcendental state is so similar to the dreaminess of slumber). To get a jump on a fiction piece, or to enter into the realm of a character, Butler suggests “dreamstorming”: “inviting the images of moment-to-moment experience through your unconscious” (Butler 31). Dreamstorming involves entering a meditative state by turning off analytical language, closing one’s eyes, and floating in a character-specific daydream. The more frequently a writer achieves this trancelike state, the easier it will become to write from the unconscious. A “dream memory” akin to muscle memory will result.

           Another of Butler’s key concepts is that of “yearning.” Yearning relates to the phenomenon of desire, and is revealed in a sort of second epiphany. A la Joyce, the first epiphany with which most literary folk are familiar is a “shining forth” which bubbles up in the story climax or crisis. Butler suggests a second which he says should occur “very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth.” If this yearning is proficiently handled, it should produce a visceral reaction in the reader. This second epiphany, Butler claims, is what is “missing from virtually every student manuscript I’ve read [as well as] . . . from much published fiction [which] . . . you may admire . . . but nothing resonates in the marrow of your bones” (Butler 41). To discover this longing, the writer must ask of her character, “What is it at her deepest level that she years for?” (Butler 42). Once this itch has been discovered, the writer must seek the “inciting incident”—what challenges that yearning by initiating a state of unbalance in the world of the character. Following the inciting incident (or concurrent with it), the writer must discover the “point of attack.” This introduces the conflict—the manifestation of a character’s yearning. 

           If one is able to establish a character’s yearning, and enter the zone, one should be able to elicit a feeling from the reader which Butler dubs “thrum” (Butler 114). When a reader is reviewing fiction as a work of art, she should feel a music-like draw and rhythm that feels like thrum, thrum, thrum. Now and again, she will encounter a twang. When she proceeds thrum, thrum, thrum, twang, she should note the twangs, not for the “symptoms (that is, the technical aspects),” but for the cause. It is likely that the twangs are a result of writing from the head, rather than from the unconscious.

           Perhaps the most interesting demonstration of putting his method into action that Butler shares is what he calls “the anecdote exercise” (Butler 141). In this exercise, Butler asks a student to share an anecdote aloud. Then, as if Freud delving into the unconscious of a patient, Butler asks step-by-step questions to direct the student to retell the anecdote from a sensory perspective, stopping the student if she stumbles upon abstractions, generalizations, etc. This sort of directed daydreaming seems to be what Butler ultimately seeks to internalize within each writer when she returns to her writing space and closes her eyes to dream her fiction.

           I am excited to see the affect of this book on my own fiction writing. I feel that, as a result of Olen’s instruction, I have developed a hyper-awareness of the message that I often try to “send” readers through my writing. I am now awake to the idea that when I write, I may be hovering above my unconscious, only describing what is within it as if I am observing it from the Grand Canyon’s rim, rather than swimming with it in the Colorado meters below. I have come to see that I am imposing understanding from without, rather than using sensory memories to evoke emotions within the reader. However, I realize that though I may have already become open to possibilities of change in theory, these techniques may be more difficult to apply than I imagine.

            In the vein of encouraging writers to take courses from multiple instructors and to read many different approaches to fiction as a craft, From Where You Dream is a must-read. Even if writers don’t utilize or incorporate Butler’s method wholesale, many of his concepts are undeniably key to getting fiction right. In all, Butler’s most important message is this:  let go. If you can permit yourself to, the real writing can begin.


Erin Snow Pennington is a recovering attorney living in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied creative writing at Duke University, earned her JD, then left the law to get her master’s in writing. Pennington is the managing editor of Literature and Medicine, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She teaches first year writing at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, creative writing at Wrightsville Prison, and has taught professional writing workshops at the Clinton School of Public Service. Her essays have been broadcast on National Public Radio’s Tales from the South, and her essays, poetry and fiction in various local publications. She has recently completed an essay collection titled Storied Things: A Memoir in Possessions, comprised of the stories behind meaningful objects, and is undergoing the daunting task of searching for a publisher.

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