[Wrote this this week, and wasn't sure it was appropriate for posting. It's an attempt to set down how I write, as much for the personal benefit of writing down such things as to share it. Mainly I'm just glad I'm finding out what methods work for me, and if you don't enjoy these navel-gazing posts, then (1) take away from this preface that I've learned to outline and skip to the next one, and (2) how the hell have you lasted this long read waxbanks.net?!]
In college I resisted my own best impulses as a writer - or in any case those I now judge to be or to have been best - because at the time I had no way of evaluating them as such. When you can toss off a 20-page undergrad seminar paper in a single afternoon and have a stern critic tell you it's worthy of a strong grad student (as happened on one glorious, bad-habit-affirming occasion), you sometimes let yourself slide a little in the area of method.
I outlined in its entirety my senior paper on Blade Runner and hardboiled detectives, which was pretty good thanks, in an email to myself which I'd extend and postpone in pine, sitting in MIT's Athena clusters (generally w20-575, the big ugly smelly dim lonely room at the top of the Student Center, for a long time my favourite place to get such work done - not least for its proximity to the arcade and LaVerde's Market). I sent the email only when it got long enough to prompt paranoia about catastrophic data loss; mostly I just hit Ctrl-O and set it aside at night's end. The biggest problem with this method is that it necessitated keeping pine open all the time, meaning I got immediate notification of any incoming email. Which is a problem when you're on the receiving end of literally hundreds of messages a day (as at my height - or depth? - in college I was).
Nonetheless, that was a key step for me: by senior year I had experienced firsthand the value of outlining. Back then my outlines took a particular form uniquely suited to my preoccupations: I'd make notes about the kind of relationships I wanted to note, the shape of a given paragraph and how it should drive to a particular point. The climactic or focus sentence of each paragraph was usually suggested in the outline, sometimes written verbatim long before the paper itself took shape; the neatest feature, as I recall, was that each paragraph transition was outlined, so I just needed to fill in supporting content, as the 'idea work' was already done at an early stage. This worked. No idea why I was unable to stick with it at the time. I had no concept of these outlines as writing, or even part of the 'writing process'; back then it was something that took up time before the writing itself could begin. Now I know better (but then I have fewer big deadlines to meet, so what the hell do I know?).
For the 'Marx, Darwin, and Freud' class with Prof. Mazlish senior year I shot from the hip on the final paper, doing one of my deeply stupid 7pm-noon runs (with several hours good sleep in the middle) and preparing not one iota of research in advance. Note to self: you can't get by on brilliant ideas if, y'know, they're not. He gave me the grade I deserved, the bastard.
In grad school we moved to the one-paper-per-term model that so poorly prepares grad students to systematize and develop their prose (I'm serious - I think that system works for students who're already good at it, and cripples the majority of grad students, who never build up their analytical chops with regular shorter-form exercises). I found this kind of a pain in the ass, since it meant that missing one deadline would kill me in the class. And it meant that a did a bunch of final papers that amounted to long thought-pieces, since I remained committed to my 'jack off all semester, write the paper the final week' plan, (patent pending).
OK but leave all that aside. Fast forward a bit to 2005, November to be exact. NaNoWriMo, which as unhealthily dedicated readers may recall was something of a mixed bag for your correspondent. I wrote 2/3 or so of a 'novel' and did so with no idea, in advance, what would be the plot; character names were cooked up on the spot, and the thematic material sort of worked its way in through improvisation. Please note: that is bad!! Both in this case and as method. The one scene I'd thought up in advance - a game of Nomic played on a bus, if you must know - was pretty much catastrophic, as I had a notion of subject that was divorced from how it was to be executed at the level of prose. I was unable to fit the style of the passage to the scene, and since I never advanced past the Shitty First Draft stage, it never came together. NaNo 1, WaxBanks 0.
Things then did not hesitate in becoming less like absolute bollocks.
There are two directories on my hard drive in which I keep my writing, and I take it to be an indicator of major growth that the old one is called 'Writings' and the new one's just 'Writing.' Today I did a little reorganizing and consolidating. The biggest difference between the two - besides the silly Strong Bad icon I used for the old one - is that half the documents in the new folder are called foo-notes.txt, where foo is some project I'm cooking up (or have in one or another form executed already). The first long script was outlined extensively, by hand and in several text files, and Act III was mapped out in painful detail before a line of laboured dialogue came into being. The current one exists as several versions of a short narrative in plain declarative prose; a beat sheet evolved without me realizing it, months ago. Ye Olde Spec Pilot (oh that thing) started life as a half-dozen pages of character notes and scene ideas before (weirdly enough) the process was kickstarted by a single defining, to-me-exciting question ('What if XXX and YYY had to ZZZ in order to ABC?' where XXX and YYY were character shorthands). I literally threw out most of the old pages - but wouldn't have written a word if they hadn't existed.
I'm planning on doing NaNoWriMo again this year - don't worry Scott, I won't bore y'all with play-by-play this year if I can help it - and already have premise, structure, topic, theme, style, loose plot, setting, and Big Finish. (Or rather two Big Finishes, and I can't decide which will be less unpleasant for me to write. You have no idea how exciting that is.) The project for October is a cast of characters worth following, and to nail down in advance the style of the thing. Regular exercises and work on sketches should lay that groundwork. I'm not particularly worried about finishing in a month, I just want the kick in the ass that registering for the 'competition' can give. I have high hopes for this project. It will be mildly tasteless.
For a few years now I've fiddled in idle hours with the idea of adapting a certain second-rate Elizabethan stage comedy, for stage or screen; the other night an otherwise-unemployed synapse fired at an odd moment, and several problems (of style, structure, and justification) solved themselves while I was trying to fall asleep. Now there's a title and a dialogue style (oh yes), and while my back was turned the bloody thing has begun to write itself a little bit. Which is to say, because I'd given myself permission to think about these things and have begun to treat this outlining/brainstorming process as central to sustained writing - yes I'm late to the party but I've been coasting by on good looks for a long time, people - I've learned to recognize 'actionable' ideas outside of the seat-of-the-pants writing mindset that for years was quite good enough. (Hell, my Masters thesis was this ludicrous accidental gumbo of sketchy ideas and schematizing on page 70 what I'd waved my hand at on page 35. My head was 30 seconds ahead of my hands and it was thrilling but bad in a sustainable sense. Still the project that most surprised its author, to date. You had to be there I guess.)
Insofar as a method has emerged from these scattered experiments - and my parallel experiments in esasy-writing, which remain more improvisatory, not least because of the influence of this blog - it is: Write memos to myself in which motivating questions are adumbrated and in their most basic form addressed. Write down a sample scene or exchange or gesture, to capture the motivating emotion for later in the process. (This is really important to me, as my writing will decay quickly and I'll tend to abandon a project as soon as I lose touch with the feeling that initially prompted it. Dunno how the hell I expected to write a dissertation; by all appearances that's no longer a problem I'll have to solve. Yay?) Start sketching out an ensemble of characters, each of whom illuminates some shortcoming or lingering question in the central character. (OK but this doesn't apply when, as is an unintended habit at this point, the central character is a blank slate whose job is to discover motivation. Bad tendency if you're not ready for it.) Sketch out a structure in repeated outlines, each more detailed than the previous; avoid providing too much line-to-line content (as the rhythm of dialogue feels most natural to me when approached in the moment, and gets less interesting to me over time) but suggest transitions between exchanges, dialogic tentpoles to guide the movement of a given piece of dialogue.
When outlining: work pictorially, spatially, in a bulleted list, anything to suggest the anticipated rhythm of viewing or reading; the writing itself will suggest microrhythms, syncopations, pregnant pauses, overdetermined digressions, and the more strongly structured the early thinking is, the more these digressions and so forth will be generated in time to the unstated and even as-yet not fully understood requirements of the work. Constrain your thinking so as to provoke a responsive creativity - putting the survival mechanism to work in the work.
In rock climbing your body develops with astonishing quickness the muscles required to keep you up on that wall. I've always thought that the reason for this rapid development is that the muscular requirements of climbing are combined with fear of falling and an in-the-moment necessity that one never gets on the Nautilus machines (though perhaps this survival mechanism kicks in a little more when working with free weights - which would give a reason, separate from the nuanced complex motions afforded by plain ol' weights, for some gym rats' claims that free weights are just waaaay better, dude, than the machines). The constraint on our development - if I don't get stronger, I'll fall off the rock - forces us to respond quickly, definitively. We simply can't not. I think it's the same when writing. Not just responding to constraint, but embracing it as a creative prompt and coupling the pleasure of experimentation to the blinkered visceral response of please let me stay alive for one more paragraph.
It's late, I'm tired, this is getting incoherent I think. Anyhow the point is to say, a method is slowly developing, and it promises results, and has even begun to deliver them. The personal changes are total and hopefully will last. They begin at the page but their center is mine as well.