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On Writing: The Reason We Read in the First Place

Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer for his first collection of short stories, teaches creative writing at Florida State University, often cited as one of the top ten creative writing Masters programs in North America. It's worth noting, especially for those of us taken with the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell made famous, that prior to his first published work, Butler says he had already written "five ghastly novels, about forty dreadful short stories, and twelve truly awful full-length plays, all of which have never seen the light of day and never will."

The first writing task Butler assigns in his course seems simple enough. He asks his students for two pages of prose, no more, and requires only that they contain a sense of yearning - that's his only directive. A sense of yearning. By this he does not mean that the piece itself (necessarily) be about yearning. He's not asking for the story of a boy longing after a girl. He wants instead that those two pages give off something to the reader - that something is the yearning he speaks of/asks for - that thing he believes all readers are seeking in fiction, the reason we go to books in the first place.

Here is where it gets interesting, because many, if not most, of his students cannot accomplish the task. Oh they can write two pages easily enough. It's that sense of yearning that is so sorely lacking. For those students, then, who can't complete the task to Butler's standard, they aren't allowed to move on to the next assignment (getting to write a short story, say). Instead Butler will force them to keep writing that two page task until the student can get it right; that is, if they can, and Butler has no qualms having them work on those two pages for the length of his course.

Over the duration of an academic term perhaps nine in sixteen students will meet the challenge. Because, Butler says, most people aren't writers. They don't know why readers go to fiction in the first place.

What blows me away about this method of teaching creative writing is how far removed it is from the writing workshops I've attended over the years, and how much Butler's methods do indeed remind me of why I read and write in the first place. Strange to think how quickly we forget (or that we even can) . But then consider every older rock band you've ever heard of discussing that new album, how they're trying to get back to why they made music in the first place.

Craft, character - all the essential elements of story  - none were mentioned or at least focused on in Butler's assignment. Instead it was yearning.

I look back on past posts about books and movies I've loved and recommended and find there is a word I badly overuse. The word is magic. It's a simple, vague and probably not overly impressive word for a writer to overuse, but so be it. Words like magic and yearning weren't meant to be dictionary defined. The oldest lesson in the writer workshop toolkit is "show don't tell" (Don't TELL us that Jack was crying, SHOW the tears streaming down his cheeks), and perhaps in the same way I'd rather just have you read the book or see the movie than try and tell you why it's magical. This is of course why I don't write academic critiques. I don't want to take the magic apart. I don't want to deconstruct. I want to leave it whole, for you to swallow like a magic pill that can take you off to another land.

But how, if you want to write, do you do that? How do you take the reader to that other place? That place we've been trying to get back to since our mommies and daddies first read us stories in bed. Butler clearly isn't pretending to have the answer, or pretending that the answer is something teachable (at least not in didactic or lecture-like form). What he is saying is that if you want to write it's an ingredient you'll need if you ever want to succeed. And as Butler explained in a talk* he gave a few months back at York University: go back to any book you've ever loved, read the first two pages and there it will be, all over those five or six hundred words - that sense of yearning.