Recently I became aware of a certain tendency of mine that manifests similarly in several different fields. I prefer to improvise. This surprised me, because I’ve always considered myself more of a type-A personality, needing things to be in a precise order, well-planned and perfectly under control. Yet as I examined my behaviors, there were several examples that seemed to stand in direct opposition to such a personality: I rarely use recipes when I cook, I prefer to create my own knitting or crocheting projects on the fly without referring to a pattern, and as a writer I am what you might call a “pantser” – I write by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go.
However, on further thought I realized these habits aren’t as contradictory to that type-A controller as you might assume. Part of the reason I don’t use recipes much is because I prefer to do things my own way, without worrying about a call for ingredients I don’t have, or a complicated technique I haven’t mastered. I still follow precise directions for baking cookies or cakes or pies because I know the chemical process requires the right proportions of ingredients and temperatures, so it’s not just an aversion to following directions or an over-confidence in my own skills. In fact, once I’d considered why in the world I was knitting a Halloween costume without any kind of pattern, fudging around where it didn’t turn out right, I realized I was in fact less confident, even protecting myself against failure. Because if I’ve made it up, and it doesn’t turn out great, I have the ready excuse that I was just kind of throwing stuff together. If I try to follow a recipe or pattern and it still turns out disastrously, I have no excuse except my own incompetence.
There’s a lot there about self-confidence and low expectations and setting oneself up for failure that I could probably unpack, but I’m not going to do that now, because this is a blog about writing. And my writing is a whole other thing.
All of these areas – cooking, crafting, writing – are creative to some degree, but writing is arguably the most creatively demanding of the three. You can make up your own recipes and knitting patterns, but if you follow what someone else has written, you still get credit for your skill. If you copy someone else’s writing, it’s plagiarism, and you don’t get any credit at all. So it’s not really about my own work/expertise versus someone else’s. It’s about creating on the spot as I cook/knit/write, throwing something in the mix and seeing what happens. It’s a heady, thrilling business, and it can lead to amazing discoveries and total disasters.
The alternative to “pantsing” is planning or plotting – creating detailed outlines for the trajectory of a story before ever starting the first draft. And while every writer has different strengths and preferences, the ideal strategy probably lies somewhere near the middle of the spectrum rather than either extreme. Excessive planning can lead to paralysis – the inability to start the draft until you’ve refined the outline to absolute perfection (which will never happen). It can also lead to a rigidity that forbids any alteration from the plan even when, during the actual writing, it becomes clear that it’s not working the way it was intended.
Those are rarely my problems. Far more frequently, I get a spark of an idea for a story and start writing it when it’s still barely half-formed. I get to a certain point and find myself stuck. So I try to balance my frenetic love of first drafts with the moderation of planning and plotting. It’s not easy. My best work has come when I take even just a little time to sketch out the skeleton of the book, the character’s initial problem, how it develops and how it will ultimately be resolved. I leave space for the details of those developments, and then once I start writing, I find ways to fill in the details, often in ways that feel positively serendipitous. It seems that I can’t work out everything in the world of my novel until I allow myself to start fully living in that world. When the characters speak their dialogue, when the scenes play out vividly on the page, I can see where the story is headed. More than that, I care where the story is headed so much more. In between writing sessions, I almost aways have the story on my mind, working out potential scenarios of what happens next. Occasionally it flows so fast and freely it’s like the story is really happening and I’m just writing it down as I see it.
I’m aware that this might seem like pretentious or even delusional nonsense, but there is something that happens when I’m writing a first draft that can’t happen with a mere outline. There is a momentum that carries me; planning too much would only impede that momentum. I do need discipline to reign myself in and allow for that little bit of planning. But I will always be a pantser at heart.