When a reader reads a story, he or she explores; through the plot, themes and characters of the story, the depths and layers of his or her own mind. For example, when we read “To Kill and Mockingbird” aren’t we, through the character Scout, exploring the depths of our own sense of injustice and racism? What does this mean for the writer? If reading is the exploration of the mind of the reader, guided by the writer’s intent, then the act of writing must be an exploration of the writer’s mind. An obvious answer, but a concept I have to explore to get my own writing out of the stall. A writer understanding how his own mind functions doesn’t just mean understanding one’s own set of biases and view of the world at large. After fifty years I have a fair idea of my own biases, good and bad, and the moral ground on which I choose to stand. After all, I’ve had to confront and defend them, if not to others then at least to myself many times. But it also means to understand how your mind functions as a process. And this, at present, is my struggle. Because writing, no matter how you look at it, is a process. And for the process to work, the process must work in harmony with how your mind functions.
After all the reading I have done on fiction writing; the instructional books, the magazines full of interviews and advise, and all the various blog and forums created by struggling thinkers like myself, I have arrived at the only possible conclusion. There is simply no magic elixir. Mainly because there are as many methods and processes to writing as there are writers themselves. Yes I know! Right know many of you are saying “Well duh, what did you expect to find?” But I am trying to work though my thoughts logically here, so bear with me. Besides, this conclusion is not quite so obvious when you look into certain subjects; such as to outline or not to outline, or whether to write genre or “literary” works. These kinds of discussions sometimes can lead you into an emotional minefield that can actually define you as that “sort” of writer. You see it today, when important and intelligent writers lambast publically the choices up for literary awards or whine about how social media is poisoning the minds of future writers. We have created a culture of extremes, with very little room for variation of tastes, ideas or even methodology. You really see it in our political and religious thinking. And that is really sad. We, as the human race, should be growing mature enough to appreciate, celebrate and take advantage of the diversity of the individual, rather than constantly trying to pigeon hole everyone into “us” and “them”. But that is another blog altogether.
Actually, the argument of whether to outline or not to outline can serve as a useful gauge in my efforts to find a writing process that will suit my needs. In this argument, there are the two extremes of thought. The first is the so-called pantser. This is the stream of consciousness writer, who can sit down and, by the seat of his or her pants, write straight from mind to page, beginning to end, without looking back or forward. They have the pure connection from imagination to page. And then there is the writer who outlines every last detail of their story before writing. They do not place a word on the page without a thoroughly conceived map of the journey; they make lists and character profiles that delve deeply into their character’s most trivial experiences. These are the Stanislavski of writers.
There are of course practical pros and cons to each method, but in reality each method amounts to around the same amount of work. The stream of consciousness writer has most of her work cut for her after the first draft with rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. The outlining writer does all this work before hand, cutting down on the number of drafts until the final draft.
Truthfully, probably what daunts me the most about writing, is that writing is about making decisions; a lot of decisions. As we move through life, we make a constant, continuous stream of decisions with every breath, most are unconscious decisions made out habit, by muscle memory or what we perceive through our senses. The others are the conscience decisions made based on experience, knowledge or even intuition. In writing, because the writer is the mind of the world and characters of the story, every decision involving the story and those characters has to be a conscience decision. Our characters cannot walk or breath unless the writer chooses where they walk and how and what they breath. Each choice leads to other choices, which in turn leads to other choices. All the possible choices build exponentially until you almost can’t see the forest for the trees.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know how to make decisions and I am not afraid of making decisions. I learned early in my career that it only takes one real quality to get ahead in the world. People will follow anyone, no matter who you are, if you are willing to making the decisions. Education and experience are important only in that they can, sometimes, help you make the right decision. But in general, to become a leader in this world means learning to fearlessly make decisions no matter the outcome. And true leaders stand by their decisions, good or bad, and then deal with the outcome or consequences by of course making more decisions.
So, coming to recognize that writing is a process of decision making, how do we explain the pantsers. I believe that there are in reality two kinds of apparent pantsers. There is that romantic stream of consciousness writer who views writing itself as a process of discovery. In my opinion, these wonderful romantics want the same vicarious joy from writing that they get from reading. And I don’t blame them at all. There is a part of me that desires this as well. Pantsers walk through the forest of decisions loving the trees and not caring, until the end, where the journey takes them. But there is another kind of “apparent” pantser, who isn’t really a pantser at all. These are writers who have such brilliant and well ordered minds that they don’t sit down at the typewriter or word processor until all the decisions are made and ordered accordingly. There are little or no notes, no outlines to speak of and write only one actual draft. For example I give you Rex Stout, creator and writer of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Yes, mysteries tend to be formulaic, so how much mental effort does it really take, but read his biography. Nero Wolfe was a creative distraction for a brilliant man who was a political advocate and commentator. Then there is also Ray Bradbury, who is reported to have several typewriters, each containing the efforts of a different work. The magnitude of decisions it takes to write one novel is overwhelming, imagine trying to keep two or three works straight. Finally, they say that the composer Mozart never wrote drafts, the perfected music would flow from his mind to the page. I only mention Mozart because when I watch the movie Amadeus I always tend to sympathize with the character of Salieri. He was the court composer, and nemesis to Mozart, who felt that God had granted him the just enough talent to create mediocrity, while giving him the level understanding and desire to be able to recognize the true brilliance in the other.
Salieri: “All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?”
Salieri: “From now on we are enemies, you (God) and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation.”
My Hero…now there is a depressing thought.
So, who am I? Am I a pantser or do I need a well marked map of my journey? Well, like Salieri, I have a drive to create. “Like a lust in my body”! And the older I get the more frustrated the lust becomes. If I could draw a straight line, I would be an artist. If I could carry a tune, I’d write a symphony or a rock anthem. If I lived in LA I’d be in the movie industry. If I lived in New York, I’d be working in the theater. I truly think the most wonderful thing about being a human being is the ability to create something from out of the depths of your mind for the sheer enjoyment of others. In the end, I have always loved the written word. Of all the praise from teachers whilst growing up, most praised my reading, comprehension and writing. I was named after a famous Elizabethan playwright and poet, who died rather infamously. Some say he was stabbed over a bar bill, others thought he was a spy for the crown. And I have memories of sitting in our tiny family library closet, trying to pound away on an old Royal, writing stories about my favorite teddy and Brownie the dog. And for as long as I remember, I have lived within my imagination. Ever read the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes? I was Calvin. Still am actually. Confession number 1, there are times when I feel like I have an addiction. That is when the worlds created in my head becomes full of people and versions of myself that are so much more emotionally fulfilling than real life that the desire to emotionally exist in the fantasy begins to actually control and change my behavior. Walter Mitty wasn’t so much a comic character as a tragic one.
Confession number 2; I am impatient; constantly questioning myself and prone to wanting immediate gratification. And I want to be a WRITER?! Well yes, I do, without doubt. Okay, I also like to have some idea on my destination and how to get there. I am not opposed to some well planned spontaneity. I can’t just jump into the air and see where the wind carries me. I need focus, and a sense of direction. That much I do know. Yet nothing bores me more than taking notes and creating lists. Of course that may just be laziness. Yet I can’t help feeling that there is little or no sense of accomplishment in a list. I begin these things and get bored and frustrated with the feeling that there is no movement, no life. No matter how thorough a character profile is, the character is not alive until he or she is walking in the environment he or she was created to exist in. And yet, how alive and unique can any character be in their story unless you know everything there is to know about them and that world they live in? Where does that leave me?
I have tried pantsing, but it takes very little time before I am feeling aimless and lost. I have tried outlining, but an outline is not a commitment. I sit down to write an outline, I even have tried pantsing an outline if that is possible, but my impatience and need for movement and a sense of accomplishment frustrates me. As soon as I get a certain amount of outline done, usually up to around the beginning of the second act, I feel the desire to just to begin writing. I want to live the story. A lovely and vicious cycle I have put myself into. It occurs to me that maybe my eyes are too big for my stomach. Maybe the term well planned spontaneity was less of a bad joke (but a good oxymoron actually) than a hint or clue. Don’t worry about the forest; the forest will take care of itself if you take care of the trees. How many more metaphors can I butcher in this blog? A story, short or long, is made up of many connective scenes. Maybe what I need to do is develop the discipline to narrow my focus from the story world view to the scene view. Quit thinking and worrying about the whole, and concentrate on the individual units that make up the whole. Outline and write one scene at a time, while keeping and maintaining character profiles progressively. The profiles do not have to be complete until the first draft is done and rewriting begins. Also, the scenes will each represent a unit of measure that I can use to feel a sense of movement and progress.
My method; I will begin with a synopsis; enough information to give me a sense of direction, yet simple enough to allow me the vicarious joy from writing that I get from reading. From the synopsis I will chose a scene to start outlining, probably the final climatic scene of the story. From the scene outline I will have characters to begin profiles on. Then I will write the scene. When the scene is written, I will begin the process again on the scene that leads to the scene I just wrote. Instead of asking what happens next, I will be asking, what brought us to this? You know what? I am not even going to create the title page until I complete the first draft, ha! Oi, did you feel that? The world just shifted.
When my niece reads this I know she will accuse me of over thinking things and she will be right. Over thinking things is the story of my life, obsessively over thinking things. What I hope, what this blog is for, is to put my thoughts into writing and into the ether for anyone, of a mind to, to read so that there can be a sense of commitment. Now I can stop thinking about how to write and start to write.