Friday, July 27, 2012

On Planning and Not Planning

I seem to be made of contradictory tendencies. One is an overweening desire to know what’s going to happen. To have it all charted out. I have gone through phases of this sort with finances and with road trips. I’ve tried it out on writing.

The other tendency doesn’t want to plan, but to follow an idea. This idea that teases me, I want to see where it heads, explore it. Like a trail. I’ve tried this on road trips much less often, but on bike rides and career paths and hikes, this is how I’ve tended to move forward. The “this looks interesting, I wonder where it goes?” approach.

I have these two conflicting tendencies in my reading habits too. There’s the “important that I read it” pile and the “I wonder what this one’s like” pile. Maybe you have this, too. I have it in spades.

In the experience of writing, I’ve vacillated between the well-plotted grand design, and the agonizing feel of a blank space, a question mark, an “I have no idea what happens now.” (This last one is like sitting at a groundhog’s hole and hoping he comes out. Because if he doesn’t, this will be a long winter. It takes a lot of faith. And sometimes--though certainly not always--what comes out of the hole is not worth the wait.)

One of you recently reminded me that in writing, as in art, there is a place for planning ahead. I’ve tried to reconcile my two tendencies by using the planning phase intuitively. I use it to explore the spark that might come out of the idea that’s brewing in my head. I use it to jot down ideas, to sketch out possible trajectories, to feel after a character. I might list what I know about him or her and what questions I have about him or her—including how she’ll turn out.

For me, it’s critical not to let this go too far. My lengthy three-volume epic that I once outlined (while working in a factory, I might add) never came to fruition. Worse, I never started it. Partly, I lost interest, and partly I got overwhelmed. I have to be careful not to expend my creative energies for this or that story in the planning phases. If I do that, I’m sunk. There’s no juice in the tank for bringing it to life. (For the same reason, I don’t much talk about ongoing story projects. Early advice I’ve found helpful.)

What’s more, for me it’s important that I let the characters take me to places I didn’t know they had in them. I figure that I know these characters (I’m tempted to say “people”) better after I’m knee-deep in their story than I did when I was just thinking about them from afar. (Though I sometimes go back to an early spark to correct a misread of character or direction, too.) As for secondary characters—the friends and colleagues and minor (and sometimes major) enemies that will crop up in the story—for me these must happen as the story invites them in, or as they bully their way in. I think a lot of writers will tell you that: some characters write themselves into the story. Almost all my secondary characters do something like that. They’re there in the path or even the psyche of the character whose tale this story primarily tells. But they too are real, moved by their own mysterious motivations. No one sits idle, a piece of furniture. Everyone, like the real people you know in life, has a story, an angle, wishes, dreams, despairs—even if they seem ever so pedestrian to you and me.

All this to say, I suppose, that planning a story (or a work of art, or a life's journey) shouldn't be allowed to take the place of the story (or life) itself. If it serves that end, all to the good. If not, let it go.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Intuitive Writing

Serendipity? Not long after I wrote my last post, Terri Windling posted an eloquent testament to the intuitive approach to creating art – visual, narrative, poetic. (If you'e not seen it, jump over there for a wealth of insight and inspiration. Trust me, it's rich.) That discussion has inspired me to reflect a bit more on the theme.

I remember a time when I felt guilty, actually guilty, that I wasn’t “doing my homework” when I wrote stories. I’d been told to plan out my stories in advance, write outlines, give my characters little biographies, work up a complex portrait of scene and society. All that before you write – so I’d been told. This advice came via all sorts of channels, mostly writing guides. But it also seemed to be what one my literary heroes, Dostoevsky, did – as far as I could tell from reading the introductory articles to his works. (I now think his approach was more intuitive than I then supposed.)

Still, I persisted in being “lazy,” jumping into my stories with almost no idea what would happen, hardly a clear idea of who was who, and at most a vague sense of where the story might go. All I knew was a dilemma or an idea, a concept of some kind. My excuse was that I didn’t have time to do all that other work. That if I did that, I’d never get a chance to write the story, explore the idea. But the deeper reason was that I just didn’t want to do it. It evoked from me a deep, internal “uggh.”

Only slowly have I come to see that this is not a bad thing. As I mentioned in my last post, I came across the other sort of advice later in my apprenticeship. I’ve eavesdropped on artists I admire, and found out they do what I do – that they loathe the notion of planning all this out in advance. That it empties the work of its joy, and saps the potential of the story itself, or their creative process. So I gave up that guilt and just started writing.

And then something happened. I had a novel that I’d rewritten a couple of times, and on the last rewrite a character had emerged out of the woodwork into the story and, despite almost no presence on the page, had played a vital role in its unfolding. And one night, though I can’t swear it kept me up, she nagged at me. She wanted me to tell her story. I thought, “This is silly. It doesn’t make sense to write the story of a minor character in an unrevised novel.” But … well, she kept nagging, in an intriguing sort of way. So, to appease her, I jotted down some four or five lines, sketching out what I knew about her and what I didn’t. It turned out that I knew quite a bit more than I suspected, but I put it aside, still thinking it was foolish to obey this impulse.

Then, a few days later, I opened up that little document, about as close to an outline as I’d ever gotten, and I wrote about two paragraphs in her voice, coming from the point in the story where she awakened from her own hardship into hope. And that cracked open my resistance. The whole story was there. It was simply a matter of finding out how we got to that tangled knot, and how it would untangle for her.

I wrote it, thinking it was awful. I almost gave up, then went back and glanced over some earlier pages – realized it wasn’t awful. After that, I wrote it with fear that I would destroy what had begun. And then gradually I just gave up my fear and prejudice and reservations, and I wrote her story with a kind of astonished, listening ear.

If any of my novels makes its way before you, I hope it’s this one. Later this summer I plan to send out her story. But if no one notices her, at least I did. And I feel a kind of awe and pride in having done so.

Like this? Come see my new blog, Fairy Spell.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...