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.


  1. What a beautiful post! I'm an elementary teacher who occasionally gets to teach writing, giving all the advice and set ups that you mentioned, but I use it mainly for the students who say they don't know what to write or how to write. The outlines, etc are all tools to help get the ideas flowing, (I think). As an artist who paints, I am much more intuitive in what comes out on the paper, which is rarely what I first intended to paint. On one level, the planning does tend to leach the life out of a creative work before it's begun. However, I also find when I plan, that my paintings are much more successful. I guess it's a balance between planning and being open to spontaneous new directions as they occur. Thank you for giving me something to think about a little more deeply, and I wish you the best of luck in publishing your novel!
    Anita Gleason

    1. Anita, thanks for your thoughts. Though I've never tried to teach children to write, I suspect you're right to use outlines and such to help them get started, learn the elements of a story, etc. I think for me it has to do with that planning and structure getting in the way, blocking me up. (When you're learning the ropes, that's another story.) By the way, I love how thoughtful good teachers are about what they do. Keep up the good work!



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