“Profoundly, Deeply, Centrally Sensual.” Robert Olen Butler on the Kinesthetic Experience of Writing
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Robert Olen Butler joins Mitzi to discuss his book Late City, out now from Atlantic Monthly Press.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: I’m really interested in, and reading more about, how our intelligence resides in more than our brain—we have intelligence centers in other places of the body. I wanted to ask you about living in the moment in your body, moment to moment, as well as your experience of writing, especially when you talk about feeling—if it’s an embodied experience for you, and if you feel when you write, that it’s coming from places in your body as well as your mind?
Robert Olen Butler: Oh, absolutely. There’s no question about that. It is a kinesthetic feeling. Most of the revision I do has to do with stripping the language that has just gone onto my computer screen of its abstractedness, of the impulse to summarize events rather than find precisely the events for us to live through in the moment-to-moment sensual way on the page. I spent most of my time rewriting, line-to-line editing, clarifying, expanding, most of that is done on this very basis in driving the work back to that moment-to-moment sensual reality, that is, in fact, our primary engagement with the world. That is the process. It’s interesting that all the other art forms—composers, and visual artists and ballerinas, all the other art forms—however much they think about it, they theorize about it, they talk about it with each other, when it comes to creating the art object, the object itself is entirely of the senses. It is movement. It is color. It is shape. It is form.
Literature is the only art form where our medium itself is not sensual. In fact, intrinsically, inescapably it is not, in fact, most words are abstract. Most words distance us from the events of the body. And the literary artist’s most demanding challenge and necessary challenge, although an awful lot of would-be artists just give up the challenge and try to convince themselves it’s not really a challenge at all. Abstract art isn’t abstract at all, its color and form, for example, visual arts. So abstract writing is indeed abstract. It takes us out of our bodies.
That’s the most demanding essential of working in this art form. To create a story out of words you do have to summarize some things, you might have something being labeled. But those things then come through the moment-to-moment, sensual experience of the narrative voice, that there is an ongoing voice speaking to us, which is itself a sensual experience. But what the voice says needs to be profoundly deeply, centrally sensual. And that’s the great challenge of this art form.
Robert Olen Butler has published seventeen novels: Late City, The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Wabash, The Deuce, They Whisper, The Deep Green Sea, Mr. Spaceman, Fair Warning, Hell, A Small Hotel, The Hot Country, The Star of Istanbul, The Empire of Night, Perfume River and six volumes of short fiction, Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good Time, Severance, Intercourse, Weegee Stories, and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Butler has published a volume of his lectures on the creative process, From Where You Dream, edited with an introduction by Janet Burroway.