While I ate lunch the other day, a group of teenagers walked in, and among the mix of bubbly innocents stood a striking young woman wearing a cheap black wig. The fact that my eyes along with those of my coworkers followed her was no surprise. More than one nose turned up at her questionable hair. Someone whispered, “Who is she?” The reply from another was “Probably a slut.”
But, maybe it was the quiet one with a neat blond bob who had the best secrets. Wouldn’t we like to know? When creating a character, which way do you swing? Does the black-haired beauty have the interesting life, or did she just like the wig?
Last spring a friend’s daughter graduated from middle school, and in response to the tired question, ‘Where do you see yourself in fifteen years,’ she said, ‘I don’t know. I’m only fourteen.’
I thought, ‘good for you!’
I don’t know why people ask that stupid question. Someone suggested that it could come up at a writer’s conference that I plan to attend next week. And I suppose it could since discussions with agents and editors are really mini interviews. God bless the people in that profession, too, since they’ve got all manner of crazies coming at them with book ideas. They’ve got to weed the crowd somehow. But with that question? Sigh. Well, if they do I’ll have to hit them with honesty, saying, ‘I don’t know. I’m only thirty-four.’
Hopefully the editor or agent will then say, ‘Good for you!’ They’ll know that trying to predict the me that will exist at the age of 49 (holy shit) is fairly unproductive. I don’t know who she’ll be. I hope that she’ll still be writing. Can’t promise, though. I hope that she’ll have a mad, crazy work ethic that will have taken her far. Can’t promise that either. Hell, I don’t even know if she’ll still like pizza.
I just know who I am now. I’ll tell the agents and editors that I’m proud of my book, that I’m intimidated by the process of trying to get it published, that I hope that they like me.
And if they don’t, would they please introduce me to a colleague who would?
Can you count the number of times you’ve driven to your office, the grocery store, your kid’s school? The street signs don’t matter, you veer around the potholes without thinking, and the scenery is so familiar that you don’t notice it anymore.
This was the case for me after taking the same route to my parents’ house for the past thirty years. But one day it dawned on me that where I normally turn left I could instead go straight.
I didn’t know where it led. I saw the pine trees line the street until it dipped down and out of sight. What was down there? After thirty years of traveling through my hometown I had no idea.
You’d think I was going on some great expedition as I drove straight one day into the land of the unknown. Who lived down there? Was it all pine trees or would the land open up to fields? Would there be any kids walking home from school? Would my internal compass help me figure out when and where to turn or would I get lost?
That’s one reason that I ventured down the road that day. I realized that I didn’t care if I got lost. How hard could it be to turn around and go back? And, I also realized that if I couldn’t throw caution to the wind long enough to take a ten minute detour I was living a pretty boring life.
Do you think I apply this way of thinking to my writing? Absolutely. I know and appreciate that all writers manage their craft differently. As with parenting, there’s no correct way. But I do have to argue for my method, which is to work without a roadmap – without an outline. I find the notion of plotting out the journey ahead of time very stifling. Like driving down the same set of roads day in and day out without stopping to wonder what would happen if I veered left or stayed straight and just wandered for a minute.
Stephen King compares writing to unearthing a fossil in his book, On Writing. What a great metaphor. So, whether you imagine yourself unearthing a fossil or taking a less traveled path, do yourself a favor and stray from your outline. Join those of us who have figured out that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to get lost.