What is Your Creative Process? Navigators and Wanderers
You’ve likely heard the terms plotter and pantser to describe writers who, respectively, outline their creative works and those who write by the seat of their pants. As a creativity geek, I don’t like these terms. They’re too specific to writing, and too limiting in terms of wardrobe. What if when you’re creative you choose not to wear pants? (I won't judge.)
I prefer to think instead about the creative journey and alternative approaches. I’d call a plotter a navigator, someone who doesn’t leave home without a map and destination in mind. I’d call a pantser a wanderer, someone who wants to savor the journey and trusts they’ll eventually arrive at the right destination. These terms apply to creative writing as well as songwriting, painting, sculpting, really any creative endeavor.
What are you?
Perhaps not surprising for someone with a lifetime’s obsession with maps, I’m a navigator. And I mean an extreme navigator. Last month I finally called “pencils down” on a novel I’ve been writing since the summer of 2018. Here’s a scene-by-scene outline I did for the second draft on a wall I covered in white board paint:
I included lots of key details, including POV, location, characters in the scene, plot development, and character motivation. I used a similar approach with my literary memoir published in 2014; that book had four (!) narrative lines, and the only way I could make sure all four continued apace was covering a white board with lines resembling a volatile stock market ticker.
I do envy wanderers. It sounds like a lot of fun, just saying “Okay, muse, let’s see where you take me today.” Instead my routine is to decide just before I go to sleep what scene I’ll be writing the next morning (usually the next box on the chart) and allowing my subconscious to chew on it. Then the next morning I go straight to my computer and take dictation from said subconscious. It’s proven successful, but it’s not particularly romantic.
On some level this has to be an artificial distinction. I assume that the wanderer begins with some fundamental truths about their work in progress. They know some deep secret about their protagonist. They know some key conflict that will arise. In other words, from the moment they start wandering, they are in fact making creative choices. They are in control, not their muse.
And as to that plot chart photographed above: It is in many ways unrecognizable to where the book finally ended up. The only constant throughout more than a dozen revisions was the final scene. I knew the protagonist and the character he had been pursuing would finally meet. The location of the meeting changed, but that’s it. The opening scene? Holy cow, I've lost track of how many of those I wrote. My point is that while I did start out with a map, and I knew where I needed to end up, I allowed myself to follow my muse down side roads and backtrack as needed to produce the best work.
The most important thing is probably to understand what your default is and accept that. Don’t be jealous of those who are opposite from you. Embrace the benefits of your approach and have fun!
Great News for a Great VCFA Alum!
Some of you may remember how I dedicated a newsletter last year to exploring a powerful essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books by fiction writer Laura Warrell titled “Writing While Black.” I wrote that “[t]his short, powerful essay is a jarringly honest account of how both she and her prose have been judged because she is a Black woman writing in a world dominated by white readers, writers, agents and publishers.” Laura shared numerous incidents of her work being judged based on the color of her skin, and challenges for writers of color in an industry with few acquisition editors and publishers of color.
You might be as delighted as I was to read this:
Laura and I were in the same MFA in Writing cohort at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she was one of the first friends I made there. She’s an amazing writer, and this is well deserved. The description also looks amazing. I can’t wait for it to be published!
Traveling the Artist's Road
The Latest on My Journey
As I mentioned above, last month I decided my urban fantasy novel was finally complete. I have sent out a few literary agent queries, and two have already asked for sample pages. In the meantime, I'm keeping my muse busy by working on another novel, a sequel to the one I just finished (more accurately, the second novel of a planned trilogy). I already know the climax and final scene. Now I’m writing from what I believe is the story's beginning, knowing full well it likely isn’t.
You've received this email because you've been a reader of The Artist's Road blog and/or are a fellow believer in living an art-committed life. I'd love you to forward this to your friends! You may also unsubscribe by clicking the link below.