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 Butler on:The ability of students to learn from watching (Length 1:37)

The "Inside Creative Writing" project
By Robert Olen Butler

I am enchanted with the Internet. And I have the strong feeling while I'm out there surfing that I am like my grandfather when he went to a carnival at the beginning of the last century and turned the handle on a nickelodeon and watched the miraculously animated image of a man with a mustache kiss a tightly corseted young woman. He, too, was enchanted, but he could only vaguely conceive the full art form-the cinema-that was nascent in those few moments of life inside this machine. The technology of the Internet is still relatively primitive, but the essentials are there to suggest the imminence of a whole new art form, a whole new way of articulating and comprehending the world. And that art form will have its own unique characteristics.

What might those be? It's not yet clear. But the most strikingly singular quality of the Internet, it seems to me, is this: for the first time, the intimate flow of an individual human existence-in all its moment-to-moment private particularity-is accessible to other individuals all over the planet. Jennifer Ringley, a pioneer of sorts in the Internet realm of homecams, has a million or more hits a day at her always-on bedroom camera where one goes only very rarely to see some blurred, routine sex but mostly to see Jennifer comb her hair or pet her cat or work at her computer. And there are hundreds of homecams out there on the Internet-perhaps thousands by now.

My "Inside Creative Writing" project, under the auspices of Florida State University, is born from these qualities that are unique to the Internet. It, too, involves the sharing of a fully elaborated, moment-to-moment act of personal intimacy formerly found only behind the veil of private life-the act of creating a piece of literary fiction. I will begin with a simple concept for a story, and with no other preparation, I will create the story in real-time on the Internet. You will see every creative decision, down to the most delicate comma, as it is made on the page. Every misbegotten, awkward sentence, every bad word choice, every conceptual dead end will be shared and worked over and revised and rewritten before your eyes. I will work for about an hour every night, Sunday through Friday, and after each session I will entertain as many emailed questions as I can in half an hour or so. I will be miked and I will occasionally try to offer some running, oral commentary on my process and my choices as I work. How much of that I can do is still a mystery. The creative process is dependent on maintaining a kind of trance-like state-what the athletes call being "in the zone"-in order to stay deeply in touch with the unconscious self, where all art comes from. I will endeavor to articulate bits of that trance-negotiation with my unconscious as they happen, but this is all very new to me. I am about to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel - in this case a thing that has never been done before - and I'm not sure how much kicking and screaming that will induce.

A word on the story concept: I have an extensive collection of old picture postcards that I've sought out not for the images but for the messages written on them. Particularly in the first two decades of the last century, before telephones were common, people poured their hearts out on the backs of postcards. I have hundreds of these and I have long planned to take my favorite two dozen or so of the cards and write first-person short stories picking up the voices from the written messages. The story I create online will be based on one of these cards. I don't know which one yet. I will choose the card at the last minute so that I won't have a chance, even unconsciously, to pre-plan the story-I want the whole process to be visible in real-time on the Internet.

I tell my writing students that works of art do not come from the mind, they come from the place where you dream. I deeply believe that. And so I welcome you to my dreams.

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