In one of my creative writing classes I took in college, just a couple years ago, there was a book we were required to read called From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and teacher at Florida State University. My teacher had been a student of Butler's and he introduced this book to us. From Where You Dream is a collection of actual classroom lectures Butler gave to his students, which you don't get from writing books most of the time. Most writing books are either about inspiration or technique/craft, but Butler's book is about his own philosophy.

Anyway, there's a part in the book where Butler talks about yearning and how your character's yearning for something is a key element in fiction. In discussing this, Butler ends up giving a pretty good definition for the difference between genre and literary fiction. I'm going to quote a passage to show this.

From page 41:

[The lack of yearning] is interesting, because writers who aspire to a different kind of fiction--entertainment fiction, let's call it, genre fiction--have never forgotten this necessity of the character's yearning. Maybe that's why they're selling books and we're not--because you cannot find a book on the bestseller list without a central character who clearly wants something, is driving for something, has a clear objective: I want to solve the crime. I want to kill the monster. I want to go to bed with that woman or that man. I want to win the war. You name the genre. Every story has a character full of desire.

The difference between the desires expressed in entertainment fiction and literary fiction is only a difference of level. Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire's heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other. But that there must be yearning the genre writers never forget. We do.


Robert Olen Butler also has something to say about writer's block. There was a discussion here a while back about if writer's block is even real. Several people claimed that writer's block is not real, that it is just an excuse for not writing. I disagreed with that the only people who thought writer's block isn't real are those who haven't experienced it. The rather casual dismissal of writer's block got under my skin since I have experienced it, so I thought I'd throw out this little barb to all those who said it didn't exist. The following passage is from the above-mentioned book by Robert Olen Butler.

From page 30:

A word about writer's block here. I think writer's block probably suggests that you have an artist's instinct. Bad writers never get blocked. Writers who write from their heads and are comfortable doing that--they always have some garbage to put down. I talked last week about the flow of metathinking, metaspeaking your mind. That stuff's always there and it's easy to put it on the page. I think most writers who get blocked do so because some important part of them knows that they've got to get to the unconscious. But they're not getting there; they're thinking too much, so there's nothing there. Except it's not quite nothing--you sit there thinking, fussing, and worrying: "Gee, I'm not writing," "I've got to write now and I'm not writing," Oh my God, I'm not writing," "If I want to be a writer I've got to write and I'm not writing." I think writer's block of that sort is the most common kind among writers who have any talent.

Writer's block is very similar to insomnia. What happens in insomnia? You lie down, intending to go into your dreamspace, literally; into the depths of your unconscious, where you totally lose touch with the outer world. That's what sleep is. But you can't do it. Why? Because you can't turn your mind off. You lie there thinking about things. And if there are images, it's only because you're carefully controlling them. You sometimes have a kind of daydream going on, but you're in charge of it. You're making it happen, and you get upset about this and you think about that and you argue about this, and all the time there's this "Gee, I still am not sleeping, am I?"...What happens when you finally fall asleep? Suddenly an image comes out of nowhere: a rainy street, a street lamp, a dog barking. Whoa, where did that come from? Nowhere. And at the moment that image comes, if you ask, "Well, where did that come from?"--it's gone; nothing will follow and you've got thirty-five more minutes of being awake.


Anyway, From Where You Dream is a good book and I encourage you to check it out. It's much different than other writing books out there.

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Umm! In genre, the protagonist needs to have a stake in the events to explain his actions. I think he's quite right to say literary writers often forget this (and rely merely on the character to express his humanity.)

However, his take on writer's block strikes me as a tad arrogant: "I am the artist; hence I suffer." It is entirely possible to write oneself out of a block (through garbage to inspiration), while sitting around on one's hands moaning does absolutely nothing. True, many genre writers simply churn out formula day after day, but not all genre writers are the same.
A word about writer's block here. I think writer's block probably suggests that you have an artist's instinct. Bad writers never get blocked. Writers who write from their heads and are comfortable doing that--they always have some garbage to put down.

An artist's instinct? Do people who make their livings as painters, photographers, film makers, musicians, etc. get to sulk around claiming that they're "blocked"? Not if they want to eat.

So writer's block exists, but it only exists for good writers???? Sorry, but I'll stick with being bad and having some garbage to put down and actually finishing something. Or, maybe I should send my agent 300 blank pages and say, "See what a good writer I've become! I'm an artiste now, because I have writer's block."

Writer's block is baloney. Writers write. They get something on the page, even if it's crap. Crap can be fixed. A blank page cannot.
I'll give you five bucks if you actually do that.

The whining he gives examples of is what happens when people think about it too much, which he says not to do, so I think he would agree with you.

I disagree that a blank page cannot be fixed. After all, we all start with a blank page, so if it can't be fixed than no one can write anything good. An alternative would be to wait until you have something decent to write rather than writing bad until it starts to be good. Whatever works for the individual.

The passages I quoted are taken somewhat out of context, since yearning and getting into the zone are what he is talking about in the chapters these passages came from.

I was beginning to think you had stopped coming here.
Jude, I'm glad for you that you don't suffer from writer's block. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, just that it doesn't exist for you. This argument feels a bit like when my doctor told me that my allergy attacks were all in my head. Just because she had no clue what was happening, it didn't mean it wasn't real.
Hi Pepper,

Maybe the temporary inability to cognitively create language on a page is the symptom of an underlying condition, but I don't think what we typically refer to as writer's block is a diagnosis in and of itself. Depression is real, and treatable. Bipolar disorder is real, and treatable. Allergy attacks, of course...

Writing is an art, but it's also a business. If it's your job, then you figure out a way to get the job done. If you're sick and you can't work, you seek treatment. Moping around with a mythical condition called writer's block ain't gonna put food on the table, no way no how.
your last paragraph is the best description of writer's block I have ever heard!
Well-said, Jude!
I had a thankfully short but still annoying attack of "writer's block" while working on the novelization of Snakes on a Plane. I've also had some of what I consider my best work so far tumble out almost non-stop. I do believe in "writer's block" or what ever you want to call it but I don't think it has anything to do with the ultimate quality or genre of the writing. I also think that the difference between a pro and a hobbyist is that pros need to keep on working through the block as best they can.
i agree with all that. The point of Butler's book is to get into your unconscious and write from there rather than thinking about it, and analyzing it. He sounds condescending when he calls genre writing non-art, but I don't think he means it in terms of quality, but in terms of depth of yearning, or the scope of the work, or however you want to put it. But I do think it's true that genre writing and literary writing have different levels of "yearning", at least in the general sense. There's always crossover works.
Gawd - he sounds a tad pretentious for me. Oh, how I yearn to have writer's block for then it means I am a literary genius and not one of those simple genre writers who write to entertain the masses, bless them. I'm sure we all get stuck at times. For a verbal laxative I take a shower which, for some reason, helps. And then I just put that garbage down :o)
That's actually not what he's getting at at all.
Well, sorry John - maybe my brain is too small, but that's what it sounds like to me! I don't think I could read a whole book full of that, so he's obviously not for me anyway.
it's not a big deal. I shouldn't have put in the writer's block part. It's taken out of context and it's drawing all the attention away from the first part about yearning, in which Butler actually praises genre fiction.

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