Category Archives: Getting Schooled

Dude, that’s one really long sentence

Ha. The magical, mystical, way-too-long sentence. It was part of an assignment where we were given a laundry list of short sentences (He wore a shirt. The shirt was frayed.) about an individual that we had to work into a single sentence.

I don’t feel right about sharing the entire list, but there were sixteen items to work into the sentence. Most of my classmates managed to do that in far fewer words than I did.

Still, I think I had more fun. So here it is, in all it’s 106-word, longwinded glory.

The man stood, gnarled, emaciated fingers clutching a sign held high above his head, the frayed cuffs of his shirt poked from the sleeves of his suit coat jacket, its material shiny with wear, the stubble on his jaw cast his mouth in shadow, but his forehead shone with sweat, while the sign’s letters, a single word–PEACE–appeared penned by someone very young or someone very old, and on all those hot afternoons that August, he held the sign high, only lowering it when the traffic thinned, the rush of blood to his hands making the skin pink and–for a moment–like a child’s.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

German: the language of love

So, the other day, I was helping Andrew study for his first German vocab quiz. He kept saying the article die (sounds like dee) as die (as in roll the die or die, irregular verbs, die!). He couldn’t remember the word for table (der Tisch)

I was helping him with pronunciation when Andrew commented: “Wow, you sound just like my German teacher.”

Six long, arduous years studying German. Vindication. At last! It was so worth it.

After a while, Bob called him over and whispered something in Andrew’s ear. Andrew’s eyes went wide, he held a hand over his mouth to keep in the giggle.

“Go tell that to Mommy,” Bob said.

Andrew marched over and said, “Ich liebe dich.” Then, “What? What did I say?”

He was still laughing because he’s twelve and anything that sounds even remotely off color delights twelve-year-old boys.

I told him: “You just said, ‘I love you.'”

So he said it again. And again. And Bob observed: “German, it’s such a beautiful language.”

I gave Andrew my sage advice for pronouncing German words: “When two vowels go walking, the last one does the talking.” That’s worth at least two years of German right there.

Andrew was suitably unimpressed. So I added, “Inch by inch, Russian’s a cinch, yard by yard, Russian is hard.”

“Ich liebe dich,” was all he said.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Kids

You never know where you might end up

So I was procrastinating doing a little web surfing this morning when I discovered that an essay I wrote a few years back ended up in the syllabus for a creative writing course. To be more specific, it was the Kidd Tutorial at the University of Oregon creative writing program.

I have since been revised out of the course. But I was there, or rather, my essay, Learning to Lie Still, was there, under the lesson topic: THE WRITER IN THE WORLD: as witness, mirror, canary.

Of course, the “half-empty” side of me immediately thought: Hm, maybe I’m the negative example for that particular topic. You know, Personal Essay: You’re Doing It Wrong. Still, to put a positive spin on that scenario, I would still be providing many, many writers a valuable service, no?

Still, I “shared” a lesson with Susan Sontag, Eudora Welty, and Alice Walker, so no matter what anyone said or thought about my meager little essay, I’m completely psyched to have ended up there, if only once.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

Getting schooled: a writer prepares (for the worst)

Despite all his talk about writing from the unconscious, Butler believes a writer should prepare before sitting down to write a novel.

So, does he want you to outline?


Brainstorm, do character sheets?


Plot boards, Excel spreadsheets, synopses?


He wants you to dreamstorm your novel. Yes. You’ve heard it here first. (Well, unless you’ve read Butler’s book, in which case, you heard it there first.)

It goes something like this:

  • Dreamstorm a scene from something sensual, by making a list of words, having some sort of sense impression attached to it with the briefest identifier of that scene. Do this for a whole bunch of scenes. It doesn’t matter at this point if two scenes contradict each other.
  • After eight to twelve weeks (yes, really), Butler suggests the next stage is to write a phrase identifying the scene on a 3 X 5 card.
  • Then orchestrate the scenes, embracing the randomness in creating the sequence, but looking for continuity. (No, I don’t know what this means.)
  • Look for the first good scene, the best point of attack, to begin the flow of sensual moments. (This, however, makes more sense.)

Butler believes in the natural sequence. (I don’t know if this is like natural selection or not.)

Actually, what he means is the scenes will eventually fall into an order that works for the story. You start with the best point of attack, Then select a few more follow-up scenes to write. after you write those scenes, you look at the remaining ones. You may need to rearrange or dreamstorm new scenes based on what you’ve written.

He doesn’t like the idea of writing out of order. If you start writing a scene without any previous context, he believes you’ll lose the unconscious aspect of it. You end up creating ideas as to why the scene is happening rather than dreamstorming them.

At some point you type: The End.

In all seriousness, I am all over the index card idea. You can do anything with index cards. Miss B can create a whole cityscape with inhabitants and pets with index cards. The very least I can do is write a novel.

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Getting Schooled: If we were a movie

Now here’s a chapter I think we can all get behind. Butler calls it cinema of the mind. He’s not talking adaptations here, but rather film techniques writers can use. These are:

  • The shot: A unit of uninterrupted flow of imagery.
  • The cut: A transitional device for getting from one shot to another.
  • Dissolve: A transitional device that superimposes a second image over the first as it fades out.
  • Scenes: Unified actions occurring in a single time and place; a group comprises a sequence.

Butler considers the montage the most crucial element (that’s why it gets its own paragraph). This is where you put two things next to each other, causing a third to emerge.

For instance, we see pie tin with a bit of lone crust, a smear of chocolate filling, a bit of whipped cream. On the floor, two children (perhaps a big brother and his little sister), mouths rimmed with chocolate, whipped cream on noses and cheeks, the two snoozing lightly.

Yeah, we pretty much know what went on.

And that’s pretty much it. I know. Butler, this easy? Okay, so in the text, he goes into detailed (but helpful) examples from Hemingway and Dickens. But the advice is to write the movie in your mind.


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Getting Schooled: The unbearable lightness of yearning

Ha. You thought I forgot. But, I. Did. Not. Butler is back and he’s feisty as ever. Today’s topic is yearning. Or, in Butler’s words:

I would say that of the three fundamentals of fiction, there are two that aspiring writers never miss: first, that fiction is about human beings; second, that it’s about human emotion. Even when fiction writers are writing from their heads, abstracting and analyzing, they’re mostly analyzing emotions; so even if they’re not getting at the essence of emotion, they’re trying to.

But the third element, which is missing from virtually every student manuscript I’ve seen, has to do with the phenomenon of desire.

By which he doesn’t mean romantic desire (although I suppose it could).

Yearning is always part of the fictional character. In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.

He goes on to state that you can have a story rich in character, conflict, problems, attitude and so on, and totally miss the desire boat. And if that ship sails without you, you pretty much don’t have a story.

This is also the chapter with what I call the Great Genre Dis. Butler draws a firm line between writing that is art and … all the rest, what he calls “entertainment writing.”


His main argument is essentially that this type of writing uses generalizations and abstractions and that what readers do is fill in the blanks left by those abstractions.

I’m neither here nor there with this argument, although I know it upsets some writers greatly. There’s some great genre fiction out there and some pretty crappy literary fiction. I also find some “entertainment fiction” far from entertaining and some literary fiction utterly absorbing.

I don’t know art, but I know what I like? What else can you say?

Still, Butler does give genre writers their props, since they almost always “get” the idea that their character yearns for something–to solve the mystery, save the world, get the girl. (Dude, that sounds like a great story. I’m so writing that.)

So, genre wars aside, yearning is a concept that you can apply to any type of writing. I decree it so.

Speaking of yearning, I’m sure you’re dying to know how I’ve done on my quizzes so far:

Quiz 1: 13/15 for a B

Quiz 2: 8/8 for an A

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Getting Schooled: Review

So today I thought we’d review what we’ve learned so far thanks to Robert Olen Butler. But instead of actually writing something, I thought I’d let the Internet do it for me.

Just think of how close we are to the day where we won’t have to write our own blog posts!

Let’s review:


Summary brought to you by Wordle.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

Getting Schooled: The (twilight) zone

Now that we’ve left boot camp and hell (bonus side trip!), we get to enter the zone. If you’re familiar with the term re: athletics, Butler uses it much the same way. It’s muscle memory, only for writing, it’s dream space or sense memory. You perform (or write) without thinking. It’s all from the unconscious.

So, cue the music: Y’all ready for dis?

I thought so.

But getting into the zone is difficult. We don’t want to go there in the first place (hell, remember?), so NOT going there is far more tempting than actually going there. Until we actually get there, that is. Because when you’re writing in the zone, it’s great. You’re on the literary equivalent to a runner’s high.

So, getting there? Well, here’s Butler on that:

You may not be ready to write yet, but when you’re in a project you must write every day. You cannot write just on weekends. You cannot write this week and not next; you can’t wait for the summer to write. You can’t skip the summer and wait till the fall. You have to write every day. You cannot do it any other way. Have I said this strongly enough?

So … is he saying we should write every day?

He suggests writing in the morning (going from one dream space to another), but most importantly, using something–a cue, a routine, anything that says: I’m writing now.

This alerts your imagination that it’s time to get busy. So, light your aromatherapy candles, cue up your Yanni album to track three, and set your word processor’s font to GirlyGirl.

Whatever works. Although Butler isn’t talking about pampering so much as routine. He relates how he wrote four of his novels on his train commute from Long Island to Manhattan and had a terrible time when he moved to Lake Charles, LA during the middle of his fifth novel.

Butler also talks about what happens when you don’t write. Unlike a lot of writing gurus, he does believe writer’s block can happen. Again, unconscious = scary place = no writing. You know something is off, you try to write, but you’re thinking too much and nothing’s there.

He relates it to having insomnia. I’ve coined the term “writer’s insomnia” and I think it perfectly describes the state. I know I should write; I really want to write. I try to write.

I got nothing.

It can really turn you into a Cranky McCranky Pants. (Not to be confused with Hottie McHottie Pants. Two totally different things.)

Butler describes the self-loathing that accompanies this: you’re both a worthless human being and a worthless writer.

If this is the only message I take away from this course, it will have been worth it.

Because I’ve been Cranky McCranky Pants for the past couple of months. It sounds crazy to have a book sale, with that book coming out in eight months, and not be able to write. But there you have it. I’ll spare you my self-loathing.

The remedy is deceptively simple. You write. Sure, it’s scary, and there’s all those side trips Butler wants you to take. But in the end, you-to borrow an overused but athletically appropriate phrase-just do it.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

Getting Schooled: Making sense(s)

Despite what I wrote yesterday, Butler really wants to be your friend. He does! He loves you!

Butler’s premise is this: to create art, we must write from the unconscious. We cannot think–as in analytical thought. We have to turn off that self-conscious inner voice that’s going all the time.

Do you narrate your own life? Well, stop it.

It sounds easy, tapping into the unconscious, but according to Butler, not so much. He says:

If the artist sees the chaos of experience and feels order behind it and creates objects to express that order, surely that is reassuring, right? Well, at some point, maybe. But what do you have to do first? And why is it so hard? This is why-and this is why virtually all inexperienced writers end up in their heads instead of the unconscious: because the unconscious is scary as hell. It is hell for many of us.

So, the first stop on our Butler tour was boot camp. Now we’re in hell. Nice.

But why is writing from the unconscious so important? Well, according to Butler, you access your sensual memories rather than your literal ones that way.

This is why when you write something from literal memory no one believes it, even though you protest, “But it really happened!”

Write a big honking lie, but write from the unconscious, from emotion and the senses, and everyone thinks it’s true to life.

Butler’s deal with the senses: Emotions are experienced in the senses and therefore are best expressed in fiction through the senses. He’s got five for you:

  • Sensual reaction: inside our body, such as body temperature, heartbeat, throwing up a little in your mouth, and so on.
  • Sensual response: what we send outside our body: posture, gestures, facial tics. Any YouTube of the presidential debates would make an excellent primer for this.
  • Experiences of emotion: flashes from the past, not so much analysis as impressions, waking dreams.
  • Flashes of the future: essentially anticipation, yearning (more on yearning later; Butler is big on yearning).
  • Sensual selectivity: we have to select which senses to convey in a story, since at any one time, we experience thousands of sensual cues. In other words, we don’t want the kitchen sink of details flooding our stories. How do you pick which ones to convey? Well, by emotion, of course.

Do you feel like we’ve just traveled around in a big circle? I think maybe yes. But that’s okay, it’s gets us ready for our trip into the (twilight) zone. More on that later.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing

Getting schooled: Robert Olen Butler’s boot camp

So because insanity is my middle name (well, not really …) I’m taking a writing class. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Have you ever not taken a writing class?

Sadly, the truth is, I’m either taking a writing class or thinking about taking a writing class.

This particular class is based on Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. Not only does the class come with reading and writing assignments, but a quiz! Each week! Dude. I had no idea.

So, I’m going to blog a bit about it here. You’re riveted, I know.

The first chapter is Boot Camp and it starts with this quote from Akira Kurosawa:

To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.

Quick! Look over there!

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Why is this chapter called Boot Camp? I think it’s for the following:

…. the great likelihood is that all of the fiction you’ve written is mortally flawed in terms of the essentials of process.

We’re not even off the first page yet.

What I have to say to you will indict virtually everything you’ve written.

Page two.

Are we having fun yet? Boot camp? Oh, yes. We’ve just tripped down the bus steps and met our drill sergeant. Next up, the YouTube of me deleting all the writing on my hard drive.

Actually, what Butler is driving at is the idea that we don’t write with our head. The story should come not from the mind, but from where you dream, from your unconscious.

This is great news for those of us who never felt quite smart enough to write in the first place.

Anyway, we’re just getting started with Mr. Butler. Next up: I over analyze stream-of-consciousness.


Filed under Getting Schooled, Writing