60 Stories About Decapitation? Sounds Like A Lark

When a human is decapitated, scientists and doctors concur that he can experience about a minute and thirty seconds of waking, thinking life before the brain runs out of blood. There is also some consensus that in a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of about 160 words per minute.

These are the observations of Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winning author of short fiction and a Fellow of both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. So do the math- as a severed head, one can cover about 240 words before death. In his latest project, Butler writes about 60 monologues in only 240 words- the last 240 words- written from the perspective of people who have been decapitated throughout history, even mythology, going as far back as Medusa and as close to the present as Nicole Brown Simpson and people who recently got the sword in Iraq.

Last Tuesday, Robert Olen Butler came to UVM. My Professor, Philip Baruth, gave our writing class the chance to lunch with Butler, who broke down narrative art. He said writing is about three things.

First of all, even if you write about animals, narrative writing is about humans.

Second of all, it’s about human emotion.

Third, and most importantly, the thing that, in his experience, students never put into their written fiction, the temporal, the passage of time.

At one point he said to us, “Ask any Buddhist monk, one thing they will all agree on is that humans can’t exist for 30 seconds without having some sort of urge or desire.” Thus primarily, fiction is about desire and the dynamics of desire.

The unconscious or subconscious, that white-hot center, is the place where all our desires come from. And Butler says that the deepest form of desire is the human yearning. If writing is only about craftsmanship and skill with words, then it fails to encompass the very thing that makes us human. To capture the human yearning and the sensual flow of experience is to create art. Butler believes that this is precisely where students fail. Students write characters with problems but fall short of capturing the yearning.

After lunch, Robert Olen Butler gave a reading to a packed room in the Dewey Lounge of Old Mill. He read a story from his new book, Had A Good Time: Stories From American Postcards. Butler found inspiration from post-cards of the early twentieth century he collects on the side; not the art of the post-card, but what was written- snippets of people’s lives and souls.

His ability to assume the perspective of people from all walks of life became evident during the reading. He told a fascinating story of an immigrant girl and her twin sister as they landed at Ellis Island from Ireland, wrought with the feelings and vividness of actual experience. Butler then read several stories out of his collection of decapitations, a collection called “Severance,” and filled the moment of passing from life to death with the emotion of someone’s last thoughts.

During the question and answer session, Butler’s notions of literature and art as a form were reiterated with even more detail than earlier at lunch. The dream space, where the author ventures, is the primary source for literature; all criticisms of literature are secondary.

The reader should essentially strike a chord with the experience of the characters. Only then will the reader “hum in tune,” as Bulter said. English classes that focus on interpretations and structures, the secondary, are bad because they do not allow the student or reader to freely engage with the primary material the artist creates. He offered the point that if we went into movies with the same kind of rigorous interpretations as with literature, it would destroy the experience of a movie.

Robert Olen Butler has written about ten books and has eleven more unpublished books. He won the Pulitzer price for A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, about the experience of Vietnamese post-war immigrants. Butler is a master of voice among a wide array of perspectives. My favorite piece by him is about a jealous husband who comes back to life as a parrot in a pet store. His wife buys him and takes him home.

The parrot watches different men visit his wife. It’s called “Jealous Husband Returns In Form Of Parrot” from Tabloid Dreams.