I’m not an outliner.
I don’t have any pants because I’ve written by the seat of them for so long, I’ve literally worn through them. I have patched the ass of my pants so much that the original material is a mystery that has been lost to time.
If I had guts, I wouldn’t even patch them, I’d just wear them proudly like a pair of tacky chaps. Behold, for I have written so wildly that I’ve worn through the seat of my pants.
Or something like that.
It isn’t that I don’t WANT to outline. I’ve tried. I’ve been told I’ve come up with some really good ones, too. I still try before each project (No, really – I do.) The problem lies in the mysterious workings of my grey matter.
When I outline, I freeze up.
No, no. Not the way you’re thinking. My problem is that I’ll write up an outline and everyone looks at it and nods and says , yeah, that could really work. Write that bad boy.
And then some gear gets stuck in my head that insists I CANNOT DEVIATE from the outline. Then I start to panic. I’m a bad writer for outlining and not sticking to the outline. I’m not professional. I HAVE TO MAKE THIS OUTLINE WORK OR I’M A FAILURE (Note that this is how my fiction brain works. The Nerd Words side of the grey matter just giggles at the outline and ignores at least half of it, if not the whole thing beyond the initial subject.)
I have suspicions about where this thought process comes from, and I think it’s similar to my deep seated aversion to fish as a food product (I lived near the Potomac River when the water sanitation plant was right on the banks – you could literally watch mountains of solid waste avalanche into the river as the smell of sewage and dead fish overwhelmed your senses. I was nine and to this day I have problems with fish on my plate.).
When I was young and impressionable, my English classes began teaching OUTLINING AND THE RESEARCH PAPER.
I think I was 12 when this began. Around this time period, my father also began introducing a new angle to his parenting techniques: “if you can’t do better/understand this subject/do things my way, you are a failure.”
I’m not saying my hang-up is all his fault, but I do feel that there is some correlation when one combines a certain level of pressure to perform along with an equal amount of WTF level of confusion regarding the subject in question in relation to a child’s psyche.
Between sixth grade and my senior year of high school, I had 7 different English teachers, 6 different History teachers, and a beginning Sociology class, all of which required THE RESEARCH PAPER AND ITS ACCOMPANYING OUTLINE as a part of one’s grade, in 2 two different states.
I was exposed to several different methods of outlining and brainstorming. Note cards, steno notebooks, words clouds, fish bones, trees, Roman Numerals and a few others I don’t have quick names for. But we all know the drill:
1 – You’re told THE RESEARCH PAPER IS COMING.
2 – You’re shown various methods of note gathering and outlining and teacher pet-peeves.
3 – You must turn in your OUTLINE on this date for approval or gentle suggestion that you try again.
4 – You must then turn in your introductory paragraph that follows your APPROVED outline before starting on your paper for further editorial approval or another consultation on how you might want to approach this project.
5 – You then turn in your paper with your approved outline and introductory paragraph. A PAPER CANNOT BE ACCEPTED THAT DOES NOT FOLLOW ITS PROPOSED OUTLINE. YOU WILL RECEIVE AN “F” IF THIS HAPPENS.
Here’s how this process went for me and my various reactions:
1 – Oh, cool. A research paper. I can totally tear this up.
2 – Ahhhh… okay. I don’t get this outlining thing. It looks cool and it looks like it makes things easier, but what you’re writing on the board is not making it into my meat brain. Could you possibly explain it again, but differently? (I stopped asking questions by 8th grade – teachers thought I was being a smart-ass when the reality was it made no sense to me. I stood in awe of how you could do this stuff in graphs and tabs and drop downs and Roman Numerals and what-not.)
3 – Shit. I don’t understand outlining. I’ll rip this outline out and expect the teacher to tell me I’ve done it wrong, because I really don’t get it. Then maybe they’ll explain it different so I do get it.
3a – Get outline back with an A and approval to go ahead.
3b – Try to come clean with teacher and tell him/her – “I don’t understand one word I handed in.” Get a nice pat on the head and reassurances that I do understand, I just need a little self-confidence.
4 – Fuck. My outline has been approved and I have no idea what I’m talking about. I know my subject, but this outline sucks because it makes no sense. Dammit, I’m out of time. Rip something out, turn in an intro paragraph with the outline. Expect to be taken aside and Counseled.
4a – Actually, I’m hoping to get Counseled. I’m hoping someone can explain it to me in such a fashion that I get it. I’m hoping that someone can make English sound like English, because right now it sounds like dividing fractions, which is another subject I’m stressing out about because I don’t get that either.
4b – Get intro and Outline back with an A and approval to go ahead. “It sounds interesting. I can’t wait to read it,” the teacher writes as an encouraging comment.
4c – Accept that I am well and truly screwed. I have an outline and an intro people like, but I know the truth – I filled pages with words that had no meaning to me because I didn’t understand the flowchart or whatever and now I have to make good on it.
4d – Sob. Repeatedly. I will fail my class and my life will suck because failure is not an acceptable option in my father’s eyes. Hell, C’s are considered an offense worthy of a 2 hour lecture in which I am informed, in detail, about how I am ruining my life and setting myself up for failure with such a poor academic record. B’s usually just get an eyeroll and an “I know you can do better if you apply yourself, you just don’t want to try, so I’m not really interested in engaging you on this topic until you show me you are interested and willing to work to get an A.” (A’s get a pat on the head. Nothing else. Just a pat on the head.)
4e – 3 days before deadline, after twelve iterations of a paper that I can only get 2 paragraphs in before seizing up when following the outline, say “Fuck it” and throw out the outline and the intro paragraph. Rip out a paper sans outline on my subject from an angle that’s anywhere between 35 degrees and 180 degrees off from the original proposal. Write up a new outline and based on the paper I actually wrote and hand that puppy in, along with the original outline that bears no resemblance to the new one. I still have no idea what I’m writing in the new outline, but the words match what’s in the paper, which I do understand.
4f – Wait in misery, convinced that I will be moved to the idiot part of the class.
5 – Get the Paper and Outline back with a B+
5a – Flip through paper, discover 2 spelling errors and 3 grammar typos, but otherwise, there are no comments ANYWHERE EXCEPT ON THE LAST PAGE which typically reads: “This was a lot more interesting than your original outline and intro. If you’d pitched this first, you’d have gotten an A. Why didn’t you do that instead?”
5b – Find out that everyone else who deviated from their outline failed miserably or got a D. Keep my mouth shut and think: Motherfucker, what?
Advance to the next grade.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
By the time I got to my senior year, I was an ace at ripping out outlines that meant nothing to me, sounded great to everyone else, and were immediately discarded once I got them back and I wrote free-form while cackling maniacally, because I would invariably go off on an angle that I was not only discouraged from doing, but that I was at least twice told there wasn’t enough material to write a full paper on.
Oh, really? Not enough material to work with? *cracking knuckles* Challenge accepted.
And flipped the bird at my father while doing so.
(Okay, so I sucked at being a rebel. In truth, I was terrified my father would find out this was how I was really working, because it would mean another lecture about HOW I AM FUCKING THINGS UP.)
I still sit in awe of people who can word-cloud or fishbone or flowchart or whatever the hell. It sounds like it makes life so much easier.
If you get it.
If you can neatly fold-up your writing pants and put them away, by all means, do so.
If you can burn your pants without harming yourself in the process, light that match and toss it, baby.
Even if you’ve found an app or a program or some obscure method dating back to Hammurabi’s speech writer and it makes sense to you, and allows you to frame your pants in a shadow box with a nice velveteen background, then for the love of all the gods, roll with it.
But I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret of mine: after the 4th or 5th craft book on a particular sub-subject in writing, I start to feel like I’m in the self-help section of the bookstore, because all the books sound the same – Zen and the Art of Outlining; Outlining and You; Writers Who Love Outlines; Our Outlines, Ourselves; Outlining – a Psychotherapist’s Approach. (Obviously I’m just making these titles up, since I’m not interested in a debate on how I’ve completely misinterpreted Joe Author’s dissertation on Outlining)
The advice is the same. The words are different, but at the end of the day, the advice is generally the same. Which means one of three things for most people who are familiar with the self-help section of any bookstore:
- Someone will say the same thing, but in a different way and in such a manner that a lightbulb goes off in your head and YOU FINALLY GET IT
- You will throw the 35th book you’ve read across the room in rage, decide other people have chronic physical disorders and get along fine with their lives so you can pull on your big girl panties and learn to accept your brain is wired a little funky and just work with it
- You swear off writing and join a monastery or pay a therapist to uncover repressed memories of being abused by schnauzers or something
These are your options.
At 40, I’ve learned to embrace my crazy, whatever brand of crazy this is.
And I can’t burn my pants.
Some days, my butt actually looks good in them.