To plan or to plunge?

What a nude “gesture sketch” class taught writer Rachel Howard.

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.  Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one.

—Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches

Annie Dillard's self-portrait sketch.

Annie Dillard’s expressive self-portrait sketch.

Rachel Howard’s essay on “gesture writing” in The New York Times interests me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve taken two writing classes from her through Stanford’s online continuing studies offerings, and she’s a generous teacher and a true prose artist who has published a memoir about her father’s murder and is completing a novel. Second, her essay concerns one of those core writing issues that is challenging to discuss and which I’ve gone back and forth about on this blog: the role of the conscious or critical mind versus the unconscious or intuitive mind in initial creation.

Rachel’s insight favoring the intuitive arrived after she started posing as a nude model for drawing classes. She was impressed by a teacher who urged his students to capture her essence in the pose rather than to try to make their sketches representational. Rachel explains:

This “gesture” idea was fundamental. In painting classes, where I held the same pose for three hours (with frequent five-minute breaks, thank God), the paintings that looked most alive were built on top of a good gesture sketch, a first-step, quick-and-dirty drawing in which many crucial decisions about placement, perspective and emphasis were made intuitively.

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

This quick impressionistic approach helped her, she says, find the essence of a scene she’d been struggling with in her novel. Abandoning her keyboard, she sat on the floor with a notebook and saw the scene unfold fast and clear in her mind. She jotted new dialogue, suddenly seeing and capturing a new point of view as well. In Peter Elbow’s terms in Writing With Power, Rachel experienced the scene. And when a writer does that, the scene lives because its details are both organic and relevant—what the writer or participants really would see and feel—rather than being laboriously descriptive and feeling somehow false or dead.

Elbow speculates that effective images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid images rather than abstract ideas or conceptions. He notes that one drawing technique forbids the artist to look at the paper but to pour all energy into seeing, and explains:

The drawings people produce when they can’t look at their paper are very instructive. They are liable to have obvious distortions of one sort or another. But they usually have more life, energy, and experience in them than drawings produced when you keep looking back to your paper and correcting your line and thereby achieving more accuracy. They give the viewer more of the experience of that torso or apple. . . .

If you want your words to make a reader have an experience, you have to have an experience yourself—not just deal in ideas or concepts. What this means in practice is you have to put all your energy into seeing—into connecting or making contact or participating with what you are writing about—into being there or having the hallucination. And no effort at all into searching for words. When you have the experience . . . you can just open your mouth and the words that emerge will be what you need. (In the case of writing, though, you will have to revise later.)

Writing With Power (discussed much on this blog, along with his other work, as the linked words suggest) is a brief for process-based writing. Elbow’s theories apparently have done much good in schools because beginning writers are taught that their first drafts can be messy, and should be, and that writing is steadily refined instead of arriving flawless the first time. In contrast, what I and many writers do—compose and edit at the same time, polishing each sentence and passage as we go—he calls “the dangerous method.” That’s because, in his view, the critical, editing mind is different from and hostile to the creative, holistic one.

Recently I wrote here about stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, in which he argues that there isn’t such a split, and that in struggling to perfect each sentence—he “auditions” and rejects many—the writer discovers her material and brings it to life. Even as the Times offers Rachel’s essay, it’s running a new one by Klinkenborg, another of his small wonders—only 386 words—about the mounted head of a mule deer, shot by his father during their Colorado years, that he’s been lugging around his whole life. His essay interests me because I’m a fan, because of its remarkable compression, and because I’m vacationing in Colorado right now.

This apparent schism between Rachel and Verlyn’s process of composition relates to the everlasting argument in creative writing between “plotters,” who plan everything, and “pantsers,” who plunge in and proceed by the seat of their pants. I think most writers work in the middle; they do both, if not initially then eventually. Notice that Rachel had a complete draft, at least of that problem scene, when she retreated with her notebook. One might even surmise that her intuitive fix worked because she’d already gutted out the scene; she knew it cold from more plodding work.

Who knows? But the fun and the key is finding out what works for you.

After I posted this I realized maybe I’ve muddied the water in equating Elbow’s dangerous method—editing as you create—with planning your structure. A writer might polish each sentence as she goes even if she doesn’t know where she’s going in terms of plot or structure. Also, in Rachel’s example she already knew what was happening in the scene—she’d previously created it—just didn’t like how it was playing out. So she sat and riffed, seeing it fresh. But it was not in that sense initial creation.


Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, NOTED, revision, teaching, education, working method

15 responses to “To plan or to plunge?

  1. Todd

    Always thought-provoking, Richard. Athough, the more I write, the more I get lost in a narrative, the more I find myself wishing I had planned the writing, instead of going through edit after edit and still not seeing success with a story. And the older I’ve gotten, the more skeptical I’ve become of this sort of “spontaneous” insight that these supposed intuitive writers experience. I began to find myself suspicious of it after plunging into reading several of Robert Olen Butler’s novels back to back and getting worn on the “breathiness” of his prose. I was inspired to write and read like him after watching his video series from FSU where he writes a short story online. I wanted so much to tap the inner pneuma after that but it just doesn’t seem to work. Or it seems to create repetitiveness.

    • I appreciate these insights, Todd. You know, when I was writing my memoir I started reading Butler’s book on writing, From Where You Dream, and stopped, sensing it would be very bad for me to read at that time. As I said, I think writers essentially do both and most end up at pretty much the same place. The paths converge.

      After I posted this I also realized that I may have muddied the water in equating Elbow’s dangerous method with spontaneous writing in a structural sense. That is, a writer might not know where she’s going with a piece in terms of plot and structure but ALSO polish each sentence. Also, in Rachel’s example she knew what was happening in the scene already, she’d already created it, just didn’t like how it was playing out. So sat and riffed, seeing it fresh. But it was not in that sense initial creation.

  2. I find that I use a combination of the “dangerous method” and the more standard writing then revising. Basically, I can’t articulate as easily unless I am weighing phrases in my mind and testing them out as I write. But then occasionally, I will go back over what I’ve written so far and make changes before going any farther forward. That hybrid of the two methods you describe is the system that has been most successful for my stuff, anyway.

  3. Great post, Richard. I read that Gesture Writing essay in the NYT and thought to myself, Ah, this is what Richard Ford did when he wrote CANADA. A remarkable book full of sensory detail that rounds out a deep story.

    While I agree with Todd that too much panster can lead you off into the swamps, I do think there is merit in getting the broad strokes of a scene down using this method. I have kind of come to it myself in a round about way. I find that whenever I sit and fully absorb a scene from memory, how it smells, feels, and looks, those broad strokes become place holders in my head for later revisions. Too much plotter can create a dead manuscript.
    Balance is what we need, eh?

    For sure I’ll look up Elbows’ writings. Thanks for those links.

    • I ADORE Ford’s Canada, Morgan. My favorite novel/book read in 2012. I hadn’t thought much about how he pulled it off, I mean in terms of his working process. A major novelist who’s a friend told me that in his case, he started out plotting everything but now feels his way.

      • Todd

        That’s an interesting note about Richard Ford…maybe over time you don’t need to plan as much. Over time the craft just becomes intuitive?

        But when you’re learning your craft (and I am still learning, as far as fiction goes), planning is a great route to take, although many writing books seem to want to thrust young writers into writing intuitively.

  4. I’ve noticed that as well, Todd. Maybe the process-based writing movement has been so successful in schools that it has become doctrine. A mixed approach seems a balanced one to me. I heard some first-time novelists a few years ago at AWP and they talked about starting by writing “islands,” the hot spots, instead of struggling toward them. Then once they had some core scenes and had written as much as 100 pages they figured out their stories and went forward. OTOH I know a popular novelist who plans everything. Then he thinks about and imagines the night before what he’s going to write the next morning, and when he goes to the keyboard writes blazingly fast. I don’t believe he does much if any revision of the first draft as he goes, yet he has his narrative’s structure and plot planned.

  5. My first memoir essays flowed right out of me like gestures on the page. But the book was another matter completely. For me, there was a big difference between short work and long work. I could see and feel the shorter work in my head and then try to perfect it as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’m still not very good at holding the whole of a longer work and planning the plot points, etc. But, as a first-time author, I’m happy with the shape of the final book which benefited from both the white-heat of inspiration and lots and lots of perspiration also.

  6. While working with Dee on her memoir, she’d bring me a chapter, and I would keep the good parts, rewrite, revise, and then ask her to sit down and close her eyes to return to every scene (especially the painful ones, for she skirted over those). I’d ask her to time travel and use all of her senses to give me more details. It was a powerful process.

    So, in our collaboration, we did both. She outlined the story she wanted to tell, and then we flew by the seats of our pants.

    • How neat—I can picture you two there. I always wonder why there isn’t more collaboration like that in book writing, because it sounds like so much fun.

      • Todd

        From what I am reading and discovering, this type of thing happens more with genre fiction writing.

  7. I think it really helped Dee get through the tough parts, Richard. She didn’t have to go it alone. And it was fun to collaborate with her.