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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There is something so blasted self-conscious about philosophizing on the literary writer's "art." Just what is in their unconscious, or subconscious? Writing involves judgement, practice, knowledge, recognition, understanding, and objectivity. None of these resides in the murky depths of the soul. They are conscious activities. Even the "manna from heaven" or sudden brilliant idea does not get into the book until it has been judged appropriate.
I'm voting with the "pretentious" crowd. "Yearning" is a nice word, an artistc word. All he's really going on about was put succinctly by Kurt Vonnegut: The character should always want something, even if it's only a glass of water."

As for writer's block, I don't argue that it's not real, but I'm sticking with Stephen King's (I think) definition: "Writer's block is what happens when you're trying to be a better writer than you are." That's not pejorative; everyone has days when things are easier than others: writers, baseball pitchers, musicians, ditch diggers. Trying to write beyond what you're capable of AT THAT TIME is as good a definition of writer's block as I can think of. People who haven't written for a year or more because they claim to have writer's block pretty much waive the right to be called writers.
"People who haven't written for a year or more because they claim to have writer's block pretty much waive the right to be called writers."--This sounds a bit pretentious too.
Then what are they? Writers write. I know quite a few people, fine writers when they do it, who seem to be in love more with the idea of being a writer than with the work of actually being a writer. If words aren't getting put on paper, they're not writing. If they're not writing, they're not writers. It's not a question of what they'd like to be called; it's a simple definition of what they do. Or don't do.

Cal Ripken WAS a baseball player. Warren Rudman WAS a United States Senator. Harper Lee WAS a writer. All were good; none does that any more, so past tense is justfied. If you want to stipulate that someone who has been blocked for an indefinite period of time USED TO BE a writer, I see no srea for disagreement, but no one's a writer just because they say they are.
I agree. This isn't really an ego thing. It's a fact of life. I never once got a charge out of holding one of my books or a contract. I don't get a charge from fan mail, though I'm grateful. I do get a charge out of a neat twist I manage, or out of a particularly strong scene, but trust me, that fades quickly enough when I struggle with something else.

I would say, however, that you are a writer as long as you keep struggling with the words and consider what you are doing as a profession. The market doesn't always respond favorably to effort, even when the writing is very good.
I agree. Getting words down is what makes the writer; publication doesn't enter into it. What someone's called if they're published or not is a whole 'nother discussion.
It made me feel like a voyeur to read Butler talking about literary fiction writers as "us" and genre writers as "them." I'm glad I wasn't in his class! I had to smile when he said the reason literary writers get blocked is that they have to get to the unconscious and they can't always do it readily. Anybody who's ever read Julia Cameron's THE ARTIST'S WAY (or talked to somebody who has) knows that you don't need to be unblocked to write "morning pages," ie go straight to the unconscious and write down everything you find there. After that, you can sit down and work on your manuscript. Freud called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious," so maybe morning pages are, hmmm, a winding country road to the unconscious. And did I understand correctly that Butler claims genre writers write more easily because we're willing to write garbage? Puh-leeze!
I'm not going to argue about whether or not writer's block exists. I've experienced it both as a visual artist (painter) and as a writer, and it seems that people who claim it's not 'real' have never experienced it. Um, okay. Whatever. Perfectly fine to agree to disagree. Of course you can continue to write/paint/compose/pick your poison. Sometimes stepping back is the only way to let your mind recharge and refocus. I'm very wary of blanket 'fixes' and blanket generalizations on this subject.

As for the idea of 'yearning,' I have to agree with Dana's Vonnegut quote, which is a simpler way of stating R.O. Butler's premise. Stakes are a vital part of the engine that drives any good story, regardless of whether that story is put in the 'genre' box or the 'literary' box. And frankly, I find this constant picking at the differences between genre & literary fiction disingenuous and unnecessarily elitist. Not making a jab at you, John, just tired of the general debate that does little to move the field of fiction forward. I just don't see what the big damn deal is.

The premise of the book sounds interesting, but I have to confess I'm not sure if I'd be up to wading through the overall tone based on your excerpts. Thanks for posting about it, though. Always good to hear about new takes on the how and why of writing.
I ran into Butler twice at Florida writers' conferences. The first time, I turned up my nose at his literary/genre discussion and walked out. The second time (How did my friends talk me into hearing him again?) I listened raptly as he read a short story. Truthfully, the story was wonderful, so I bought this book John talks about. It's also wonderful, although I've ignored all the literary/genre bullshit and concentrated on that unconsciousness he tells you to seek. I begin my writing now after waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning, and I can't imagine changing. I love it.

Butler's a great, moving writer. He's just pissed his books don't sell like Patterson.


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