Inside a writer’s mind

Text: Solveig Hansen, 2016

Watch a story come alive — live.

Creative writing professor Robert Olen Butler took “show, don’t tell” to a new level when he created a 4000+ word story, called This is Earl Sandt, from conception to final draft during a live webcast of 17 two-hour sessions in 2001. You could watch “every comma stroke, every lousy, rotten, awkward sentence, every blind alley, every bad metaphor,” to use his own words. At the end of each session, he answered questions from the viewers.

As the basis for his story, he used a 1913 photo postcard of the aviation pioneer Earl Sandt. We can see how the right wing of the biplane is starting to tear away. The text on the back reads: “This is Earl Sandt of Erie Pa in his Aeroplane just before it fell.”

Butler chose to tell the story from the photographer’s “I” point of view, and he knew from the start that he would let the aviator die in the crash. The real Earl Sandt did survive the crash but died later in the hospital.


You might not agree fully with Butler’s interpretation of art, but the 34 hours are worth more than many writing workshops. It is fascinating to watch the story come to life, from the very first line that appears on the screen: “I’ve seen a man die, but not like this” to the reading of the final story — a performance in itself.

Butler is not a draft writer. He edits while he goes, and reads the story frequently. He stops and looks up words in the dictionary, all while Puccini’s Turandot is playing in the background, with Nessun dorma looping over and over again during the most crucial parts of the story. He uses the then-used word “aeroplane” and skips “shimmy,” which was not used in 1913.

“To achieve true meaning from your work, and connect emotionally with a reader, you have to write what you feel, not what you think,” Butler writes in his book From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (2005). To describe his own writing process, he uses terms like “dreamstorm” as opposed to “brainstorm,” “active consciousness,” and “white hot center” (the NOW), which is the place where art is created. “Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where we dream.” The goal is to create an organic whole where everything resonates with everything else.

And if it is not art? “Nonart, genre writing, entertainment writing, is typically filled with abstraction, generalization, summary, analysis, and interpretation.”

Another concept Butler introduces to his students is the yearning of a character, as described in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction: “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.”

The yearning of the narrator in This is Earl Sandt is to understand his own mortality. He has never seen an aeroplane before, and as the crash happens, he has no frame of reference in the new and modern world that is arising. He is utterly shaken and begins to identify with the dead barnstormer.

I have watched all the 34 hours, and this is what I take with me:

– Discipline. You have to commit yourself to write every day.
– Everything in the story has to be negotiable. Do not tie yourself to a certain idea or ending, otherwise you risk to lose the organic flow.

This is Earl Sandt is included in Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards (2004).

Watch the webcast, Inside Creative Writing, on YouTube:

Photo: Rayi Christian Wicaksono/Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Inside a writer’s mind

Share your thoughts:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s