Thursday, March 1, 2012

I Don’t Outline...But

Elizabeth Zelvin

At a writing conference I attended recently, an “inspirational” keynote speaker talked about the importance of daydreaming to the creative process and encouraged the writers (and illustrators—it was a children’s literature event) to get centered by some sort of ritual,
such as lighting a candle before applying what a bestselling author who also appeared at the conference calls “butt glue.”

I’m no stranger to the temptation to pop out of the chair when I lose concentration or get stuck for the next word, scene, or sentence. And I do daydream in the sense that my characters are most likely to start talking in my head, or my unconscious to provide a needed twist or plot point, is when my mind has a chance to float free: in the shower, while I’m driving, and especially in bed in the morning when I’m awake but not ready to do my stretches and get up. At this point in my life (the third third, regardless of my longevity), an alarm clock and a day job would be a catastrophe from a creative standpoint.

The inspirational speaker went so far as to provide 1,200 scented tea lights for the conference attendees to take home and use, if they choose, in their own rituals. Mine is sitting on the end table beside my favorite seat on the sofa. I never refuse a freebie, and I like candles very much. But at no point did I have the slightest intention of lighting it, chanting, meditating, or performing any sort of ritual before I sit down at the keyboard. I can remember times (in the Seventies, when I wrote my first three novels, never published) when I went through a routine involving pencil sharpening and the watering of plants. But I knew at the time that these were procrastination rites and not a summoning of creativity. (I don’t think I’ve used a pencil since the Seventies. Have you?)

It occurred to me, as I sat on the sofa meditating on my unlit tealight, that I associate such rituals as lighting a candle with sitting down, gluing butt, and staring at a blank screen—you know, what used to be called a blank piece of paper. Further, I realized that I never do that. How can this be? In the perennial division (not a debate, since we all write however we write) between outliners and what I prefer to call into-the-mist writers (I hate the term “pantsers”), I’m firmly in the camp of those who don’t outline, but write the first draft of a novel or short story as a journey into the unknown or dimly seen. My brand-new realization about my own process, however, is that I never sit down before the screen with no idea of what I mean to write today.

Here’s how my process works: In that daydreaming time, my characters start talking in my head, or a story arc or line of narrative comes to me. Sometimes, annoyingly, it comes in short bursts in the middle of the night, so I keep having to get up and stumble around in the dark. I had a light pen, but I mislaid it. I have a digital recorder, which works in the car, but my husband, who needs his sleep, would be very unhappy if I used it in the bed at 3 AM...and 3:30...and 4:00.... So how I get it down while the fit is on me is to scribble it (in pen) on scraps of paper or post-its to decipher in the morning. When I sit down at the keyboard, I invariably know what I’m going to do: either write the next consecutive line or scene or chapter of an already started manuscript or develop the scribbled fragments I’ve accumulated.

So it’s a good thing I never light the candle. It might burn up all those post-its and scraps of paper before I’m through with them.


Sandra Parshall said...

I would be terrified if I sat down at the computer with no idea what to write! I'm like you, Liz -- I don't do a rigid outline before writing; I have to write my way into the story with a first draft -- but I do know more or less where I want to go. People who lay down the law and say that all writers must write in the same way don't know much about the creative process.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Because I write and work at the same desk and computer, for years I lit a candle to signify a shift from work mode to writing mode. Then a new cat joined the household, and he's young and lively, and jumps on all horizontal surfaces. The thought of that gorgeous sable tail flicking across the flame -- yikes! So there went a perfectly good ritual!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post and tried to think what ,if any ,process I go through before starting to write. Actually, though I'm in no way a neatness freak, I have to have the surface spaces clear and neat before I start to write, whether it is on my yellow pad, note card assembly or the actual Machine from Hell! Sometimes I even dust and use the Johnson's can to really, really clean. Then I sink down in the chair and start , like a maestro at my symphony, and some days it flows and some days it goes... Thelma Straw