Monday, July 23, 2012

The zen of writing

Writing is an odd sort of occupation. Writers want to communicate with others—but not necessarily have any direct contact with their readers. The writing itself, generally intended to be shared with at least dozens of readers and possibly hundreds or thousands, usually gets created in solitude and if not in silence, then with a sound-background of the writer’s choice.

Writers differ widely in their approach to writing, too. Some swear by organization: not just outline, but detailed character descriptions, and action mapped out to the level of chapter-by-chapter, at least. Others just pick up pen, pencil or keyboard and start writing, with or without any idea where this essay or story might end up. After all, one can always fix inconsistencies and plot omissions in the edit stage.

I fall somewhere between these two extremes myself. I always have some idea what I want to say in a short essay, and I started my few novel-length works (2 more-or-less done, one more barely started) with an idea about the identity and personality of at least two main characters, the opening problem and a goal or endpoint. But I leave myself plenty of leeway, starting out with vast uncharted areas within the general territory I intend to cover.

Partly, this reflects a rebellion against early how-to-write training in school, which insisted that an essay must be fully outlined, supporting ideas and all. That never worked well for me. As I’d begin to write from my outline, I’d always find myself departing from my outline: thinking of better examples to support my argument or a better order in which to present them. So I got in the habit of writing my essay or report first, working directly from my notes. Once the paper had been written, I could go back and make an outline that reflected what I actually wrote, thus keeping my teachers happy.

But an approach to the writing process that I can only describe as a sort of zen forms other big reason for leaving myself wiggle room when I start to write. While I can understand the rationale behind mapping everything out beforehand—even admire those for whom such a technique works—I can only admire from afar. For me, ignorance of exactly how the story will unfold between opening and goal allows me to come to the story’s details fresh. And somehow I help the loose ends stitch themselves together by the end.

I’d probably have better control over length if I preplanned more, though.

Susan shares more thoughts about the process of writing on her blog about writing,

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