Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Case Against Outlines, and A Blast from My Poetry Past

For about two weeks, I was beating my head against the wall trying to think, outline, structure and plan my way through the last 20,000 words of my novel, to avail. It was only when I set myself the lofty (for me) goal of writing 4,000 words in one day and just seeing what happened, that I was able to write my way through the problem. The act of writing itself, of being present to the characters and story, created the solution spontaneously and unconsciously. I could have spent six months trying to think my way through it, when all I had to do was let the words flow and trust that a solution would come if  I just let go and wrote.

In writing parlance I'm called a “pantster”—someone who does minimal pre-planning and tends writes by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them. I've never been able to wrap my head around the traditional outline,  so I'm in a permanent state of rebellion against pre-planning my writing. As a child in school, I hated doing outlines. My brain doesn't process information in a way that makes it possible for me to get my ideas into that format. I would get so frustrated and bound up in trying to get the outline correct that I ended up feeling negative about whatever I was supposed to use the outline to produce. I didn’t want to “organize my thoughts” ahead of time in a fussy little set of Main Ideas and “sub ideas”, and I had hard time figuring out what to number and what to letter, and which idea was more important than the others. I just wanted to write my essay or story and let the ideas flow as they came. But oftentimes the teachers wouldn’t let us commit a single word to paper until we had our entire, joy-sucking outline perfect.

 This is a terrible way to teach writing! I don’t know if this is still prevalent in schools, but it sends an awful message about writing: Don’t trust yourself. Don’t trust your own unconscious process. Writing is not a spontaneous, jubilant act of creative expression, but a chore, and what’s more, one that you’re going to do “wrong” if you don’t label, judge, and place every thought and idea into this arbitrary, pre-set structure first. There’s no room for new ideas to occur during the writing process—if it’s not in the outline, it doesn’t belong. It’s an utterly stifling, fear-based, backwards way to introduce kids to writing. It’s no wonder so many of them don’t want to do it. Writing should be taught using techniques similar to Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”. We should be teaching kids early on to write fearlessly, to learn their own flow and rhythm, to take delight in the surprises that occur during their writing, and to worry about structure when it’s appropriate—during the editing process. An outline can be helpful in getting an outpouring of raw ideas into an organized form, but asking a child to start with the outline creates fear, creative blockages and judgment before they’ve even started. I for one, stand firmly behind banning the outline altogether.

That having been said, I’m sure there are probably some hyper-organized little 7th-grade upstarts out there who love nothing more than doing outlines and wouldn’t dream of allowing any spontaneity to occur during their writing. If that makes them happy, good on them. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for most kids.

I have some interesting news about the first chapbook I ever had accepted for publication—The Goatfish Alphabet! The publisher, Naissance Chapbooks, is going put each of his titles in the Naissance spotlight for one week. The featured book will be offered as a free bonus with the full price purchase of any other title. All reprints will be made with creme cover stock, creme inside pages, and red flyleaf. So it will be re-printed in a much nicer format than the original, rather bare-bones version, and featured for a full week on Naissance’s website in September. This is a wonderful way to encourage readership of Naissance’s excellent titles. And if your copy of “Goatfish” is a little worn, this will be a great opportunity to get an upgraded version, plus a whole other book for free! But you don’t have to wait for “Goatfish” to be featured to order it. If you want your fancier new version, you can get it here.

--Kristen McHenry

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