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.

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