Writers on Writing #43: Jeff Wasserboehr
Arguments Re “The Plan”
In the sweaty room where there was no air conditioning, my workshop instructor narrowed her eyes at us, and said, “Writers, the best course of action you can take is to write without having a plan. To hell with your plans. If you write with a plan, you are not an artist because everyone and their mother can have a plan.”
I know, Ouch.
Worse for me, I felt my world shatter. Due to: I was a planner. Boy was I ever. Open a notebook of mine, any notebook, and find webs, outlines, sketches, drawings, maps. I’d detailed out the bedrooms of my fictional characters down to what lay next to the tissue box. Open my laptop and find twenty-plus pages of plans for my novel. Plans. Nothing else. E.g. this scene will take place after this scene. This chapter will contain this. And so on.
None of this, or very little, will ever actually appear in the work itself.
I am a planner. An obsessive planner. Boy am I ever.
My instructor’s words hung in the air. The room was silent. She had the floor—totally and completely. All of our eyes: locked on this woman. “Don’t plan.” Don’t plan. don’tplandon’tplandontplan. The words were dancing, teasing, down my ear canal. I argued within myself: it wasjust a tidbit, Jeff,it wasn’t intended to be a complete metaphysical hang-up. That thought, followed by another, “Hang on a sec: isn’t that a plan? To not have one?” And as she went on with her lecture, I found my eyes wandering to her long, stringy hair, counting the individual gray strands falling over her shoulders. You have wild hair. As I looked around that hot, stinky room in the worst part of campus, during the worst—muggiest—part of the year, I discovered that my peers were silent, like me, and listening, but unlike me they were nodding—passionately, firmly. They were riding out the words of this lecture.
How were they nodding? I asked myself. They, too, must be thinking: Yes!Down with plans!
I felt like an outcast. A planner in a room filled with cool and carefree writers who just let things flow.
And thus initiated my quest, I suppose, to find a reasonable response to this question—should writers have a plan when they sit down to write? A question which, vexing and distressing, would lead me to asking every single one of my writing peers—and also, re the whole planning thing, painters, drawers, sketchers, filmmakers, sculptors, dancers, musicians, comedians, etc.
This question about process, unfortunately for me, came in the year I’d started teaching writing—in the effect that I was a graduate assistant who led his own sections of college writing. I was twenty-four, still pretty pimply, and these words had, coming from someone with experience, literally made me re-think everything I thought I knew about writing and everything I had been teaching. All semester long I’d been preaching to my students to think before they write. Think hard. Construct webs. Outline. “Yes!” I said. “There is such a thing called inspiration, but that inspiration is what starts an idea or a project, not what finishes it.” I proclaimed that writing, done passionately, is a painstaking process—each word methodically put onto the page, agonized over for hours. If done right, a single project should take days upon loving days to complete. Of course my students gave me that collegiate-staple one raised eyebrow look, like are-you-kidding-me-dude, but the sentiment was there. We must work hard, and we must not be too foolhardy if we want to get where we need to go.
I thought I was firm in my conviction. But asking around some of my more literary friends, I discovered that, for the lot of them, there were two distinct camps. There were those who planned before they wrote. And those who didn’t. Like, at all. Hands to the wind, no plans whatsoever. The numbers were more or less equally spread across the two. For the latter, when I asked them how they wrote sans plans, they told me they let their inspiration guide them. Or a better answer: “it’s the gut, man. Follow that gut.”
Gut. That sounded a whole lot like Hemingway.
One of these no-planners, an abstract painter, plugged his earbuds into his ear, blasted God Speed You Black Emporer! from his iPod, and painted whatever “spoke to him.”
“Think of it this way,” said another friend, a sculptor and a university lecturer in art history. “If you made chairs for a living. Chairs. All different sizes, colors, varieties. Do you sit down and start whacking various cuts of wood together? Maybe you grab a piece of White Oak because it looks great, another of Mahogany ‘cause you like how dark and mysterious it seems. No. You plan it out. I’m talking blueprints. Measurements. You visit a table saw. Pencil to the wood, you make marks. Your mind goes through this whole selection process where it separates the good ideas from bad and makes calculated decisions.”
Made sense to me. But I wanted to play devil’s advocate.
“But what about inspiration? How about following your ‘gut’?” I asked. “That has to count for something.”
“Listen, buddy,” he said. “I do not want to sit in your inspiration chair.”
I imagined an Inspiration Chair.
I imagined a planned-out chair.
All of this was feeding into my preconceived ideas of planning vs. not-planning. But, still, that nagging question: am I planning too much?
I predominately write literary fiction. When I’m faced with a blank page, sometimes it helps me to write out one or two sentences, entirely from “the gut”, but more often than not I find myself writing—first—who my characters are and what they might be faced with. After I’ve written a paragraph, or a scene of dialogue, I look ahead, somewhere down the line: just where the hell are these people going to end up? What would be ideal? Not so ideal? Below what I’ve written, I barebones the next scene. Inside of my head all sorts of stuff brews. And this stuff usually brews sloppily and erratically, and before I can generate anything worthwhile from all of these odds and ends and half-finished thoughts, I have to attempt to organize, catalogue, and flush-out. That way I know what I’m working with. That way I gain control. And while we are not the chair maker, I believe we are like them, in that we still have the obligation to separate good ideas from bad, and to make calculated sense of what all of these sentiments and tidbits mean in the grand scheme of a story, or a novel. If we do not plan, like the chair maker who builds his/her chair entirely from inspiration, do we run the risk of producing a shoddy piece of work? Something that is not well thought-out?
Time and time again I find myself thinking of Italo Calvino’s three-pronged definition of writing with “exactitude,” which come as follows:
To my mind exactitude means three things above all:
- a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question;
- an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images;
- a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination
Often, for me, all writing is transcribing images—images that are charged with varying kinds of meaning. And as writers, we are trying to be absolute in our precision when we get these images down. We want to convey the most accurate detailing possible. For me this comes with planning. It comes with thinking about what I want and devising the best strategy to get there. I realize this sounds a whole lot like problem solving. But I am convinced that writing is a problem I am constantly trying to solve.
So, yes. All of this, but I’m not knocking on inspiration. In fact, I think I have a lot to learn from those who do write without having any plan whatsoever. There is something that is so damn admirable about that, and the courage it takes. In asking around and learning about other processes, I realized that my abundance of planning is, in fact, pretty troublesome. Because it is an overabundance; and, believe me, there comes a pressure in overabundance. The more people I ask, and the more I think about it on my own, the more I believe it is undeniably both, perhaps in equal parts, plans and inspiration. These things are intricately tied together. They become the writer’s set of checks and balances.
So while “to hell with plans” sounds nice in theory, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there’s more to it than that.
On the day my instructor delivered that tidbit of advice, she ended her lecture by informing us of a visiting writer, a poet, who would be giving a reading later that evening in a nearby bookstore. “You should all try to go,” she said. I nodded. I looked around: more nodding.
“What are you planning to do?” she asked me.
And I found it absolutely impossible to answer.
Jeff Wasserboehr's work has been featured online and in print, most recently in Johns Hopkins's The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Little Fiction, and Tulane Review. He lives in Western Massachusetts where he is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At Umass, he teaches an undergraduate course in writing and interns at the Massachusetts Review.