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.