This is a nearly abandoned beach and this four by four foot sign makes the rules pretty clear:
Yet, as I walk on the wet sand, I take note of truck tire tracks, bike tracks, and what else do I see up ahead in the bear grass…is that a woman trudging through the dry sand (in the nesting area of the endangered birds)…with a dog that is off leash?
It’s not my business, right? Who cares, really?
But there’s a lesson here, and I think it through during the entirety of my stroll past the fifty smaller signs posted with the same instructions (Yes, they are posted every fifteen feet). Stay on the wet sand, no dogs, no trucks, no bikes…blah blah blah…
Do people really not see the postings? Or can’t they see? Are they so up in their own heads, so trapped in their own stories, that they are blind?
I believe yes, and yes, and yes.
And that brings me to my teaching on scene. A student recently said, “I can’t believe you are posting all these amazing teachings on Substack..for FREE…I mean, why?”
I tried to explain that it doesn’t matter if I charge or don’t charge. People still won’t write scene for a long while. They can’t. Like those truckers, bicyclists, and dog walking ladies ignore the signs and the sanctuary and do their own thing, writers are—for now anyway—slaves to their thoughts. Only repetition, and reading work in class with a coach all up in their business (like my teacher was up in my mine, and I’m up in the business of my writers) will scene finally be written.
Sorry…that’s just the way it goes. We live in a time when the mind; ordinary, rationalizing, and swift, rules. This is the human condition. Our thoughts move at something like 170 MPH. We cannot help ourselves. We are hostages, in a way. the speed of our thinking.
A few things you might have thought about this teaching:
The Willful Response: “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m an artist and I’ll do as I please.”
The Disbelieving Response: “What does she know? I read tons of books that are all up in the mind and they are fan-tabulous.”
The Stubborn Response: “I read books like that all the time and I LOVE THEM. I’m doing it my way.”
Not to worry. I do not take any of these responses personally. I know this is the nature of things. At my online school, I teach to a collective of writers who are bright, well educated, successful, and hardworking. Every single one did not write scene for a long…crazy long…time. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. 99.5%. About 89.9% pretended to write a scene by slapping down a few words for location, a couple more words to identify the people, and then reverted to pages and pages of exposition or dialogue.
It’s down to that old adage about horses and water. You can lead but you cannot do much more than that in the end.
But before I open my hands and fully let go of this conversation about scene, I’d like to share one more example of a teacher who gets even closer than me.
It’s not going to be an easy message to hear. But I’m going to tell you right up front: before I wrote my first published novel, The Alleys of Eden, I wrote literally a million words of absolute dreck. Five god-awful novels, forty dreadful short stories, and a dozen truly terrible full-length plays. I made all those fate errors of process I would bet my mortgage you’re making now. I want to help you around that. But you’ve got to open up and listen to me about this. If you’re not prepared to do that, if you are not prepared to open your sensibilities—and, incidentally, your minds—to what I’m going to tell you and to the implications for the work you have done and will do, then it is best you and I part ways now.
~ Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream
Pulitzer Prize winning author. Guggenheim Fellow. Teacher at the University of Florida. Butler served in Vietnam for two years in counter-intelligence and then as a translator and has been married five times. I’m not sure why that last bit is relevant, but it seemed interesting enough to add because he’s obviously human and has some healing work to do around women and relationship (or is supposed to be without a relationship for a bit)…but his method is what we are after here, and it was intriquing enough that a group of his students compiled his lectures into this book.
So often used, I can’t even get the cover to lay flat!
While I break scene into existing elements that are part of life and how we function moment to moment—meaning we are always in a location, we always make note of the people around us, and are surrounded by objects and so on—Butler takes the teaching a step closer to the moment by disallowing anything that isn’t image. Nothing. Zero. Zip. He trusts image (and description of it) so deeply, he bases an entire career on it.
I’m going to re-read his book this summer and re-visit his method with the mind I have now because when I first met this method, I have to admit, I could hardly grasp it (though I did write several short stories and one horrific novel by following his instruction). But getting this close to image and holding to it like a chalice is like being in a dream. It’s totally odd, disorienting, but also rather awesome.
This generous teacher teaches his method on the internet, writing a story titled This is Earl Sandt in real time.
The teaching is available on iTunes apparently, but I watched it via this link: Click here. Old school, to be sure. Boring even (get out your knitting if you must. I did a good deal of dry paper work…accounting and whatnot…while watching this series) but you want to be a better writer, right? You want to understand, yes?
Stick with Butler if you can. This is a beautiful apprenticeship where you get to see a master at work.
Okay…that’s it…I promise. The teaching on scene is now done.
Time for exposition.
~ Jennifer 🍎