“I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener.” — George RR Martin
I’ve struggled with this idea for some time, especially when trying to write something non-academic or non-blog. I must admit that I was probably too unduly influenced by Stephen King and his ideas in On Writing. Uncle Stevie states,
“I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally as well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline…it may liberate you. At the very least it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.”
That is all well and good for Stephen King. He goes on to share some of his best stories and their genesis as great “What Ifs.” It is hard to argue with this strategy and success. Besides, I don’t like tyrants, so no tyranny of the outline for me. Unfortunately, I have discovered something about myself; I not only like outlines, but am a bit addicted to them. As I tried the “King” method I found myself inadvertently making outlines as I got going on a particular idea. Sometimes it was because I was getting tired, so I jotted down some ideas of where I was going, lest I forget by morning. Other times, I would start out with an outline of ideas of what I wanted to write, I think my friend Jason referred to these as bones. That is a pretty apt description. I kept on putting down ideas and filling in around them as I went. It all seemed very anti-Kingian.
I also discovered at some point in the not so distant past that I’m a bit of a professional outline maker or at least note-taker, namely a historian. Thinking back to just about anything of length I’ve written over the last twenty years, basically everything academic, involved research, note taking, outlining, if even very rough, then putting thoughts to paper in some form of coherent mess. As loathe as I am to admit it, I’ve even embraced the editing process, though I like editing other people’s stuff much more than my own. When I edit a blog post to the point where I am not embarrassed to show it to the world it gives me a pretty nice feeling of satisfaction. This, however, pretty much convinced me that not only was I a slave to the tyranny of the outline, I pretty much was an orc in the army of darkness that is derivative writing, at least according to King, and to a lesser extent Martin, he of the gardening and architectural school.
I still harbored thoughts of writing fiction, but it was a definite back burner kind of thing. I felt that who I was, how I went about writing, pretty much ruled out the writing of anything that one would consider fiction. I’ll admit I was kind of bummed. I may not have produced anything truly creative, but I liked to think about and even give it a shot from time to time. My imagination, or so I thought, wasn’t up to the task; blogs and academic writing aren’t so bad.
Then I happened along this. (thanks Anne!) These outlines and notes are far crazier and detailed than anything I’ve ever produced. Just look at Joseph Heller’s notes for Catch-22! And that spreadsheet by JK Rowling, to quote Stephen King again, “fugitaboutit!” Looking at these outlines by famous, iconic authors has inspired me, dare I say freed me. Yes, perhaps I was using King’s ideas as justification for my own fears and doubts, fair enough. Though I think we would be hard pressed to find a creative writer who would boldly advocate outline writing and note taking. Looking over these examples, however, maybe these tools aren’t the craziest or detrimental strategy to writing. In some way it comes back to “write what you know” or better said, “write how you know.” OK, that is a bad turn of phrase, but you get the point.
So now what? Good question. I said at the end of the last blog post I was feeling the urge to write something long, to put in some real work once again. To that end, I have done something heretofore unknown to me, I’m participating in a writing group. I’m still a little nervous about it, to be honest. It is a good first step. The second step, and apologies to my wife but I literally just thought of this, (she hates finding things out via blog) I’m committing to you oh great blogging network, twitterverse and circle of friends that by the end of summer, call it August 30th, I’ll have a draft of… something. Sorry to be cryptic, I’m not quite ready to share what I’m doing just yet. I mean come on I’m 43 and just joined by first writing group, baby steps folks. I will say it is an idea, if my calculations are correct, that I’ve started and stopped at least 3 times over the last six or so years. If it has stuck around that long, I figure it is time to give it a real shot. Like so many things, committing in public, though no one has really ever held me to it, makes me feel good and responsible. Even if it is just my own stuff, I want to hold up my word. I’ll also keep up with the blogging. I like it and it is fun and good practice when other things are going slow. Now, should I use roman numerals or an Excel spreadsheet to get started?