Monday, June 20, 2011

To Outline or not to Outline, That Is the Question

I was talking with a writer recently and we got into a heated argument about writing and planning. Basically the conversation when like this:

Me: Maybe you should do an outline of your story?
Him: Outline! Never! I can't control my creative process; I need to be free and unhindered as a writer!
Me: (rolling eyes) Okay, well, sometimes it helps to get a plan for your writing.
Him: Never! Creativity needs to flow like a river, not be contained in some box like a plan or outline!
Me: (sighing) Well, even a river has banks that direct the flow of water and rivers seem to flow just fine.
Him: No! I just have to struggle with my creative process ... it's part of being an artist. You just don't understand!

That's the jist of the conversation, exclamation points and all. The debate here is an age-old one between artists and their process. Can you still be creative without imposing constraints on the creative process? Can a painter paint without knowing what they will paint before hand? Can a sculptor sculpt without knowing where they will chip away the stone? Can a writer write without an outline or some plan of attack? And if there are such plans does that somehow diminish the process of creation?

All valid questions, but all are based on a fallacy: creativity has no constraints.

The fact is ALL creative people plan, outline, constrain, and contain their process (not their creativity!), I don't care what their art. Since we're all writers, let's just look at writing.

You sit down at your writing-place and begin your session. You don't know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and refuse to think about your story in any way. You are just going to let the process run free like that river. Oh the joy, oh the freedom, oh the ... wait ... nothing is happening. The paper or computer screen is blank. WTF is wrong?

What's wrong is that the above scenario is a setup for failure. The only way this writer is going to produce any work is if he/she starts to automatic write or channel some disembodied entity, in which case they are not being a writer, they are only being a channel for someone(thing) else who is doing the writing.

No, this above scenario can't happen, if a writer wants to write. Yes, people claim the do this, but they are not telling themselves the truth about what is really going on. Even if you sit down with nothing in your head, no plan, no organization, something will come. An idea will happen and then A will lead to B will lead to C and some logic will be imposed that determines what happens next. Even if the logic only goes for one or two scenes, the writer still has to wonder what is the next scene? What came before this scene? How is this person going to act in the scene? Uh, I don't mean to burst the bubble, but this is called planning. This is called outlining. Even if it only goes for two scenes and all happens in your head, you're organizing and outlining your story. Every writer does it; every writer can't not do it. It is a function of the creative process. EVERY creative person plans, organizes, and imposes logical rules on their creative output whether they want to admit it or not. How far they go, how detailed they get, is all a matter of personal pathology (how controlling do you have to be?), not a function of outlining or organizing.

The point is that the debate about whether or not you can be a writer and still use outlines and organization of your material is a false debate. Just as a river has banks that form and direct the flow of water, every writer has banks of their creative river that gives form, direction, and flow to their writing process, without stifling or smothering that creativity. Frankly, it is only the amateur who thinks he/she has to be completely spontaneous and unencumbered by process in order to achieve his/her creative vision. Any pro knows that such an approach is a dead end, and that real writing requires imposing limits, while at the same time leveraging those limits to the full advantage of any story.

Outlining is a matter of craft, not art. Organizing is a function of being a professional, not of being a cretin. Planning is the royal road to productivity, not a dead end of creativity.

So, stop worrying about whether you are outlining or planning your work; you're already doing it.

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