This month, I read a book that completely changed my outlook on writing, business, and life in general. From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler is a practical discussion about the art of writing a novel, but the principles that Butler discusses apply equally to every kind of writing—and they translate to other disciplines as well.
As I write these words now, I feel a certain intangible pressure digging into me. It’s the feeling of a looming deadline standing over my shoulder. At times like these, I begin to feel an obligation to engineer something brilliant. Therein lies the problem with writing. As Butler points out repeatedly, you can’t use logic to deduce the perfect words. The core challenge of writing, according to Butler, is the art of inducing a quasi-dream state from which words naturally flow out of you:
“[T]here’s a trance state also that the artist must induce in herself in order to create a work of art. You have to let go of that comforting, distancing voice, you have to then descend into that deep dream space of yours, and that will result in a kind of superconcentration. Psychologists call it the ‘flow state,’ being in the flow. Athletes call it being ‘in the zone.’”
Pressure interferes with creativity, but it’s a funny thing. When you’re on a writing deadline, you might feel completely stopped for a while. Then, the pressure builds up inside you, and you manage to eke out one or two brilliantly crafted sentences without even thinking about it. Writers who regularly face deadlines often rely on these spurts of creativity—along with regular doses of caffeine. Personally, I’ve had to rely on these brief moments when writing clients were waiting for content from me. There have been times when hours or days have gone by, and I just hadn’t had any brilliant thoughts. Anyone who ever attempts to do anything creative deals with some variation of this problem.
If you’re not a writer, and you’ve ever been forced to write something, you know what creative pressure feels like. I once talked to a business owner who told me that he had struggled for an entire afternoon just trying to come up with a single paragraph of copy to describe an event. Perhaps the reason why writing intimidates so many people lies in the fact that no one has sufficiently explained the barriers that a writer has to overcome. Butler makes the mysterious nature of the written word just a little bit easier to understand. He shows why trying to compute the perfect set of words is an exercise in futility—and how the most critical skill set for writing is one that we’re never taught in school.
For me, the single most valuable take-away from this book—and also the hardest pill to swallow—was the idea that sometimes, I have to throw away my best ideas and start over from scratch. “I warn you,” writes Butler, “that my most common recommendation will be: Put this away and never look at it again. Do not rewrite, do not edit, do not fiddle, do not work this over. It came from the wrong place.” There have been times when a seemingly-perfect sentence or paragraph just flowed out of me. I have struggled to shoehorn those words into one piece or another, determined to make them fit somewhere. This applies as much to business as to writing. There were times when I struggled for months trying to implement ideas that I thought were brilliant. I didn’t realize that what I needed to do was return to the state of mind from whence I’d conceived the ideas.
Butler’s prescribed techniques pertain specifically to the craft of novel-writing. If you have no interest in ever writing a novel, but find yourself intrigued by the idea of entering “the zone,” I would suggest reading From Where You Dream, but with a bit of a twist. If you are willing to temporarily imagine yourself as a novelist for the duration of the book, you will begin to see insights about how to apply the material to your own career or business efforts. If that’s too much of a stretch for you, then think of yourself as a spectator watching a sport. Some sections of the book show transcripts of Butler critiquing his students’ work. If you make a little bit of effort to imagine what it might be like to write fiction, that will help you understand the powerful and mysterious nature of the waking dream state that Butler discusses.
If you’re in sales (and let’s face it; we all are), you’ve probably noticed that people make buying decisions based on emotion, not logic. The path to becoming a novelist is similar to the path to sales mastery—in that both the novelist and the salesperson have to continually reinvigorate their imagination. Showing a customer the logical reasons to buy something will not motivate a sale—it’s about telling a compelling story that they want to be part of. It’s about evoking desire. It’s about setting a scene that makes people want to come closer and see more.
If you’ve ever wondered how great writers manage to craft brilliant prose, From Where You Dream is the best explanation I’ve found. Admittedly, the subject is nearly impossible to describe directly, but Butler gives you a greater appreciation for where to focus your time and energy. He will also show you that you are capable of more than you thought. This book offers a maddeningly short glimpse into the world of pure possibility. It won’t give you the answer, but it will give you new questions. That’s what a good book should do.