September 29th, 2011

My theory

Monday afternoon, I went with the lovely Laura Boudreau to visit our shared alma mater, the University of Toronto’s Masters in English in the Field of Creative Writing program. Hosted by the always amazing Rosemary Sullivan, we got to read to the class, and then answer questions and chat about “the writing life.”

I love doing this sort of thing, but I should probably not over-indulge. When people ask me what I think and then I tell them while they silently write it down, it gives me inappropriate delusions that I am correct, and possibly a genius, when I’m just…talking.

Anyway, the class yesterday gave me a chance to expostulate on one of my theories about writing, and since no one contradicted me I am more convinced than ever that I am correct. But…perhaps not. What do you think? Here’s my theory…

Someone had asked if Laura and I wrote outlines before we began work on actually writing stories, and if we thought it would be a problem to just start writing and see where the story took you. I said that I never outline and probably can’t outline–I just go with some characters in my head, and a vague idea of what they might do. Usually they don’t do that thing at all, but 12 other small things, 7 of which I cut in later drafts.

But I think it’s ok. I think that there are two gifts that a writer could potentially have in her brain, and most people get mainly one, with perhaps a splash of the other thrown in. The first potential gift would be the ability to outline, to sketch and map and plan until all that remains is to write it! You hear people say that sort of thing, “It’s all in my head, I just have to write it down,” and largely they are crazy, but some people who have it “all” not in their heads but on notecards taped in an ascending line on the wall, might actually mean it.

But if you don’t get the outlining gift, then you are me and you get a different one–the revising gift! I am excellent at looking at the lumpy, twisty, incoherent mess that is almost all my first drafts and pulling something ressembling a story out of it. And I am excellent at reworking that second draft again (and again) until it even ressembles–sorta–a good short story. And then I ask other people what they think, and use their feedback to write yet another draft. And then maybe I stop…and maybe not.

No matter how long the process takes, I rarely lose patience with revisions–I figure they’re the price I have to pay for not outlining. And I hate outlining, because it’s more interesting to me to write the story not knowing how it turns out, and also because I am bad at it (I hate soccor for that reason, too). I figure outliners hate revising–they like writing the story complete and having it come out pretty close to done. I don’t think anyone writes a perfect first draft, but I do know folks who can get pretty close, and then just go back and “tidy up” in revisions. Whereas I wholesale deconstruct and rebuild.

If you can’t write an outline and you hate revising, you’re probably either a genius who just bang out a good story with no fore- or afterthoughts, or–more likely–someone who is not cut out for the writing life. I really think you have to be one or the other to write anything: an essay, journalism, academic writing, whatever.

But I could be wrong. Especially since I’ve never written a novel, or anything super-long. Maybe when something is 200+ pages, you *have* to outline. What do you think??

One Response to “My theory”

  • Laura says:

    You COULD be wrong, but I don’t think you are. I’m calling this Rosenblum’s Theory of Narrative Engineering (TM).


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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