a question of intention in writing

I received this from a writer friend:

In my writing group we were discussing how writers start writing. Do they start with an intention as in an overall theme statement?

My thoughts go to Arthur Miller, who said that if he knew the theme to the work before being two-thirds through, the work was suspect. He felt he shouldn’t know. Writing is an act of exploration.

I think this: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

I remember finding those words of his, and feeling a deep sense of relief (how we don’t trust ourselves!) because I’d always felt some guilt over not really knowing/ understanding my path when I began to work on a project.

When I talk with school groups, the subject of “planning” comes up. It ALWAYS comes up. Teachers are particularly eager to hear this. If, in the Q&A time, the question hasn’t come up from the students, then the teachers ask it. Of course, they are confident that I will give some cred to the words they’ve been repeating since September: plan, plan, plan.

As a young person I was one of those students who would quickly write the entire book report or project so that I could back-track and write the dreaded “outline” on schedule…then pretend to write the longer piece afterwards. I could not write an outline until after the project was complete…or at least the first draft. (Yes, teachers DO love me when I talk about re-writing. Re-writing IS writing. Planning is something else.)

I will say: MANY writers can and do plan, and it works well for them. Or they’ll plan to a certain degree, or point in the story. Fair to say, too, that for certain genres there are types of planning that do not interfere with “exploration.” A mystery, for example, might take a certain shape, but the elements of character development can still be discovery.

My books have begun with an historical question or a question about something in our society that is poking at me with something sharp (here, I have to go with caution), a title (yes, all on its own), an image, a fleeting glimpse of a character who puzzles me. Perhaps most often, a setting. Mud Girl was all about the setting to begin with. For me, if the first element of a story to enter into my mind is the Theme, then I become very anxious about it.

This may be because of my background. I grew up with dogma. I try hard to avoid dogma. Perhaps for a writer who has grown up in another way, working with a controlling theme from the moment of genesis is comfortable. But for me, it isn’t. In fact, in the last few weeks I’ve abandoned a project whose “theme” came early on. Too early. And I’ve been wrestling it back to a place of “discovery” since. I’ve moved on to another project. After 172 pages.

Maybe it’s a question of why we write. Back to those school projects: as children and early-year uni students, we write to study others’ words. We are not taught or guided to find our own thoughts. No one seems to think about this possibility…until grad school. So, all the “planning” takes place. You can plan when you know–or want to think you know!–exactly where you’re going. ¬†Imagine if we told students to “write until you discover something new about yourself or the world.” It would be a challenge in the 22 minutes allotted in the lesson plan. But this should be the point in writing, in painting, in dancing, and creating music.

Some writers talk about taking that “theme sentence” and writing it in big letters and hanging it over their workspace. Reminding themselves what it’s all about. Maybe. Maybe that’s what your story is all about. Is that what writing is all about? Is it ALL your story is about? Might you go zooming to that place…and miss something on the way?

What do you want from writing? From your practice of sitting at the desk?

I’ll be interested in your responses. I hope someone disagrees. Or something. I have no idea where this will go. Let’s see.



6 thoughts on “a question of intention in writing

  1. Hannah: “Thanks for reading me that. I liked it.”

    When I read your phrase from Arthur Miller, I felt such relief, then had to laugh at your next sentence- an expression of relief! I also have written the required outline after the actual piece of writing!
    I wonder if writing a research paper is where the outline would be most efficient: when you’ve got a hypothesis and you are trying to organize your evidence.

    We were wondering if when you say “re-writing is writing” could you mean that the initial writing is your raw material- you’ve decided to work with clay today, or perhaps those words are your paint. Re-writing is what you now create from that. Therefor, couldn’t the initial writing be a type of outline? You’ve decided on your medium, chosen your parameters, built a structure.

    I took a painting class once from Ann Zeilinski who told us “Your painting’s gotta have bones”. This made great sense to me then but I think it’s the same. My darks and lights settle in later in the process. Hmmm, maybe I’ll try something different next time and see what happens. No, now I see they are not similar as one is after improving technique, the superficial “look” of the thing… though one could use the dark and light to accentuate meaning…and now I’m back where I started! I really should have started this email with an outline! (This is where I would make an outline and rewrite the email, if I had the time.)

  2. I’m so glad I read this post today. I’m preparing a grant application and am worrying because I don’t think my summary of project tells enough about the project. But I don’t know more!!! and I don’t want to quite yet because I’m afraid that if I do I’ll simply be filling in the blanks. While knowing where I’m going is comfortable, I find that it makes the magic go away.
    I, too, have never been able to write an outline before a project, though they can be useful afterwards, for the editing stages. Good to know I’m not the only one.

  3. Yes, Cindy! That really is a challenge of those grant apps if you tend not to be a “planner.” I also struggle with describing a project before it’s complete and losing a sense of “magic”–that energy I need in order to complete. I know I can never write the concluding scene, or climactic scene, until I feel my writing and the point I’ve reached in the story “deserves it”–whatever that might mean! It’s so much about understanding one’s own process.

  4. Hello Aimee and Hannah! (Did you really write this in JUNE? I’m so sorry this has taken so long!)

    Yes, I suspect that schoolteachers–unless they’re also creative writers (and sometimes even then, because of how they’ve been trained)–are teaching with an academic model in mind…and a research paper does lend itself to more planning. BUT perhaps not…or a “plan to be surprised.”

    I always see a rough or first draft as being a large stone…and then the sculpting can begin. Until I have a first draft, I don’t have my material/medium. But that still doesn’t leave me feeling that an “outline” is enough. That’s not “material,” not anything I can scoop up or feel in my hands. In painting, it might be analogous to pencil drawing shapes that will be hidden later by paint…and maybe that’s why I haven’t gravitated to a painting metaphor as I have the stone and sculpting. I don’t have an “outline” with a stone. I need the full stone, huge and in the way. Just as I feel need for “bulk” in a first draft–all the pieces of character and dialogue and setting to mold from.

    Ha! I like how your message IS what you are trying to ask and determine. I say “trying” with respect here.

  5. I stumbled onto your website while doing research on Whitman, whose books were important to me when I was a child. Regarding planning, those who can know where they are going have an easier time of it than those of us who can’t. I started a science fiction novel called Cyan about 1978, finished it about two years ago, and it will come out in January from Edge as an e-book. I had to plan the planet, its orbital oddities, its biology and so forth, but my ten explorers were just a list of names when they set foot on Cyan. I got to know them by watching what they did there. Cyan is a better book for that, but it sure takes a long time to write that way.
    Mark Twain had a lot to say about this style of writing. If you go to http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/ , find Twain’s Those Extraordinary Twins (a free download), and read his opening few pages you will be glad you did.

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