Tag Archives: Creativity

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?


The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.


99 Styles Later


Wildflowers in Olympic National Park

My reprise of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style is over. Woohoo, ninety-nine styles done! (And ninety-nine photos, which were as challenging as the styles.) Having reached the end of what turned out to be a long project, it feels mighty fine.

But beyond personal satisfaction, what’s the significance of revisiting this old and unusual work? A few things come to mind. One is that a book like The Exercises In Style poses a question about the nature of literature, not only from a stylistic point of view but also in terms of story. Because a book that recounts the same mundane anecdote on every page 99 times simply has to be boring. And yet it’s not. It defies expectations,  so it amuses and occasionally amazes.

As a result, it’s a book that demonstrates the power of ingenuity, as well as the influence forms have on readers’ experience of plot — from forms that encompass the whole story, like genre, to those that lie within phrases, like metaphors. These elements not only change the reading experience but fundamentally alter the story; the plot elements remain fixed, yet in spite of this the story flows and melts and reforms as something new.

One can ask, then, what’s a story? Because if Queneau has proven anything it’s that while strictly speaking we’re dealing with the same characters and events, in reality we’re not. The story mutates when you write it from a different angle. The original ingredients aren’t well-preserved, they dissolve into the whole. Literature, he proves ninety-nine times, is as much about structure and texture as about plot and character.

Moreover, the former shapes the latter. In other words, The Exercises In Style demonstrates that what people draw from a piece of writing is perhaps more contingent on authorial voice than many realize. And not only does this mean we should pay attention to the sorts of devices and perspectives we employ on the page — a commonplace — but we should actively cultivate a variety of them. Ninety-nine might be a good number to aim for.

Of course, this has its limits. At a certain point in this ‘grand game of styles’ a longing for change, character development, or just anything new to happen creeps up and seizes you by the throat (“Please God, not the same anecdote again!”). I can’t say I’m sad to move to other projects after rehashing the same material what felt like endless times.

On the other hand, it was always fun. The constraint of repeating certain story elements pushed me to breathe new stylistic life into them, for under such limitations that was all I could do. The result was a series of ventures into new genres, voices, and rhythms that I now see have tremendous power to shape how stories come across.

Mind you, such observations could well be made through reading too. But when you try out ninety-nine ways of approaching the same writing assignment, it really sinks into your bones. Not only does such an exercise illustrate that our angle of attack matters, but it underscores our vast creative potential: if you set your mind to it, the literary fount you can tap into is limitless. We are all creativity machines with infinite production lines.

So what does all this boil down to? Creative constraints are good. Exercises that push your literary limits are good. Experimentation is good. And writing? That’s beyond good. That’s magic.

But it’s a magic that bears repeating — that demands it, lest the pencils rebel from their drawers and poke us in the eye. And ninety-nine times is just a beginning.