What I've Learned From Nerding Out on Plot
Lately I’ve been getting nerdy about plot, and it’s reminding me some things I’d forgotten.
Old school writing teachers will tell you that you can’t start writing until you have a P.L.A.N. They’ll say that writing a story is like building a bridge; you need to now where exactly where it will land, what the structure is grounded on, and where your support is. Then you fill it in.
I have two reactions to this. On one hand — tellmetellmetellme. You can explain exactly what to do in order to guarantee my story will work? This book/online class/tedtalk will remove the mystery of the creative process and lay it out like a blueprint? Creating great work is a task of engineering rather than hope, experimentation and self-discovery? I am in.
Of course, right? We reach for certainty. It’s seductive. In the meantime, can we plan out the arc of my relationship with my partner, the future of Firefly, and my dog’s health? I’d like that too.
But then I remember the first short story I ever wrote. It’s still the one I’m the most proud of, written long before I knew any of this plot theory stuff.
I was in a barn on a computer the size of a fridge, no idea what I was doing. I was following a fizzing current of intuition. That story tumbled out of me. It surged. When I was finally finished (the ending of it far more subtle and satisfying than anything I could have planned) I dropped the last period in place and found my friend Ronna, who was staying nearby.
I was breathless, scared, confounded and electric. I kept shaking my head and laughing. “Oh my god I think I wrote a story. But I might not have. I have no idea what happened. It was like making a pie in the dark.”
We hugged and she read it, and she said, “It’s a pie”, and those were my three favourite words in the English language for a long time.
Telling you that story wasn’t totally fair. That was the glorious end of a writing process. Of course it felt great. The bridge had found it’s footing. There were a ton of moments before that when I was doubtful and overwhelmed, no idea what to do next and no faith that I could figure it out.
And to be honest, that’s where I’m at with my novel now — blocked. Looking online for old school advice to make it all seem easy again. But the more I read about sequencing and spreadsheets and internal shifts the more I know in my bones that — while fun — this isn’t my truest path.
Creativity is life. Risk and uncertainty are impossible to erase. If we take that out of the process, we’re avoiding the beating heart of it all.
Let me explain. I actually think that our capacity is much bigger than our imagination. In other words, we’re smarter when we’re writing than when we’re thinking. I couldn’t have planned the end to that short story because I wasn’t wise or weird or intuitive enough to see it until I was there, on the cusp of the last paragraph, my whole body alert to the possibility of every word. When we’re at the outer border of what we already know, it shifts. We see things we couldn’t see before. But we need to be brave and plan-less to get there.
And the truth is, not every piece of writing does work. Sometimes we get halfway through and realize that we don’t want to finish it, or that something else is more important. I think that’s okay. I think it’s good. Nothing’s ever wasted when we’re writing. We turn the things that don’t work over into the soil and we grow new things. Those things are stronger because of it. My novel might not work. That risk and humility is where the surge in me comes from. And I’m realizing (slowly) that I don’t want anyone to take that surge away.
It’s a bit like falling in love. We don’t say: “I’ll have dinner with this person twice a week for six weeks. On April 3 they’ll say they love me, on April 17 I’ll say it back. June 15 we’ll move in, Oct 1 we’ll decide to get married over leftover pizza while watching Survivor. Summer wedding, tulips and a big barn, honeymoon in Cape Cod and a dark eyed daughter named Olivia by spring.”
I mean — you can try that shit, but we all know how it will go. And I think love is very similar to writing, it forces us to be in our desire and our vulnerability. It can be wildly uncomfortable. And it can be everything.
Of course, this isn’t a right/wrong thing. Planning is a tool. It has a place. If you’re in that place right now, I’m majorly crushing on this guy. Dip your cup in. Just don’t lose it.
Because… A story isn’t a bridge. It’s not made of rebar. We don’t need to all be able to cross it in the same way. God bless engineers for building those, but I’m not in that club.
I’m in the club of gorgeous, breathless discovery. I’m in the club of helping people follow the path of their potential into the clean air like a tightrope. I’m in the path of making pies in the dark and then eating them with my friends and giving thanks to the wonder of the creative process for showing me who I am again and again.
Here’s one last thought about not knowing where we’re going. That insight applies to this too — this newsletter, this website, this team. If I’d ever tried to follow a business plan for Firefly, I’d still be making a circle of chairs in my living room every Tuesday evening, maybe with slightly nicer cookies and T-shirts or something. My imagination was far smaller than what this has become.
So thank you for that. I get to build this because you’re here. I’m glad you’re in this vast unplanned beauty with me. Let’s be brave and hang out together in the uncertainty of possibility, and all it can hold.