Sunday, May 20, 2012

2012.05.20 To Outline Or Not To Outline?

I read a blog recently by Susan Oleksiew, a writer of good mystery books, who wrote that she’d rather have a root canal than make an outline for her writing. Yes!

Most writers and teachers of writing suggest outlining one’s work as a guide. It’s a good idea—and sane.  And it drives me crazy.

But I can NOT outline to save my soul and have worried whether this is resistance or just plain ineptitude. Maybe I'm afraid I'll get enslaved to my outline. I need to know I can riff at will, then edit later.  It's just how I approach writing.

I will say that an outline of sorts emerges through the writing itself rather than the reverse.  Perhaps I’m a backwards writer. Oleksiew calls this writing in the moment. 

Oddly this approach stands in contrast to how I prepare for a workshop, a sermon, or a talk for example. I prepare and prepare and over-prepare even if I'm re-inventing the wheel and it's all stuff I know already and have spoken about before. I spend too much time on preparation. It’s a safety net against anxiety, going blank before an audience. Of course I can go blank before a blank page, too.  But before an outline it’s worse: I freeze—and feel furious. 

Outlines feel like girdles, those mini boa-constrictors women used to pour our flesh into to bind our bellies and inhibit out breathing. With a sermon I have it all on index cards—so neat. I read them over. Boring. Then I preach while I drive. Watching the road I can’t risk looking at notes. I preach until the sermon is in me, not on the cards. It grows its own wings. What hearers derive isn’t up to me.

Writing is organic like that. It grows as it goes. I follow more than lead. Sentence by sentence I become its disciple. It takes off. Time stops. When I return to it I’m not sure exactly what I’ve done but I know it has its own life. Revisions don’t give it life, just keep it alive—and ungirdled.

In the words of noted German contemporary painter Charline Von Heyl (b. 1960): “It is about the feeling that a painter, or any work of art, can give—when you stop looking because there is something that you want to find out, that you want to understand . . . good paintings have this tantalizing quality. And once you turn around, you absolutely cannot recapture them. They leave a hole in the mind, a longing.”

It occurs to me that God Creator worked not by outline but maybe like artist Jackson Pollack, splashing and smattering colors and critters around all over the cosmic canvas.  Some outline!

But, how else do you think the earth got so wildly colorful, varied, totally, erotically unmanageable—and easterish?