The Misunderstood, Abused, Victimized, and Writerly Essential Outline

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

For me, the edgiest of the double-edged questions we’ve all asked a teacher, a colleague, or ourselves concerns the “outline”—first, when do I do it, before, during, or after I write, for which the mordant answer is yes, and second, why do I do it, which is harder to quantify because it suggests that planning a piece may be categorically different than writing a piece, as though the pair are maliciously counterbalanced, feathers and lead. I say malicious because such a myth (writing fun, outlining dumb) invites a more emotional query: Does the outline mean that we must succumb to that which is not writing, as though we’ve fallen from rapture to drudge—Lewis and Clark giving way to the Conestoga wagons?

To outline—and I don’t mean blocking out subheadings with Roman numerals or a prefigured plot—is to make a plan where no plan existed before. An outline sees relationships, parts to the whole, the whole in the parts; an outline searches for meaning or its absence; an outline suggests how the whole, whatever the whole may be, might progress. It’s the unavoidable question of coherence. Coherence is among the most elastic of our formal elements. An outline says this or that coheres or may cohere, given further development, which only an outline seems to uncover.

This is the curious turn a draft takes toward a book: you have a book on the block or you don’t. If you do, your writing suggests a thematic path to outline; if you don’t, you may sketch what you hope will become your path. And that’s what intrigues me about this scan with the field glasses, that an outline is not mere afterbirth, but the body in question.

When I’m onto a new topic, I first draft 100 pages before I can begin to say what it is I’m up to: a lifelong skeptic, I write to generate, not confirm, a purpose. I have to make my compulsion actual, to have written it, allowing those 100 raw pages—interview, research, story, proposition, analysis—to bubble up before I can begin to see what to see. The potter gets his clay from the riverbank, while the writer has to make the clay himself.

I regard the initial mess with trauma and delight—drafting can satisfy me, but only as the right-brain rush of discovery, enacting that necessarily incantatory conundrum of William Stafford’s, which I paraphrase: I didn’t know what I would say until I used writing to find a way to say what I didn’t know I would say.

But when that urge to outline arrives, it’s as if the hostess starts flipping the light switches, and the party changes from welcoming to intrusive. The decision to outline puts a stop to the romance of writing, and the great journey becomes a task, suddenly déclassé. I stop dreaming my dream house and start building the actual one. Probably little like what I’d dreamed.

Let me quote William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well, in an essay, “Visions and Revisions.” Many of us know this experientially or intuitively: “The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking.”

There’s a stone to get lodged in your tire tread: the hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking.

It’s as though my 100 pages wave and slosh on shore, and then, surprised, I sift through the debris and find the thing hidden from view. That writing, I discover again, is not merely the fingertip pleasure that electrifies me. Writing is what I do to get to the post-writing, the new world, the thinking.

A definition or two: thinking is not sitting in the darkness alone; it’s much more active and polymorphic. Thinking is brainstorming; mind-mapping; engaging in a dialog with readers and editors; sketching, ordering, randomizing; dreaming or imagining known and alien shapes.

Thinking may use writing, but it is less discursive and more notational. With the outline, I’m trying to stop the writing brain and engage in more comprehensive skills, abstract reasoning, and audience ideation.

Here are three points the thought-inducing outline opens in a writer’s awareness:

One. We don’t know how to think—at least, not well. We’re ever dwelling in our sensoria, and even the joy of prosing uninterruptedly, delusionally, taps into this. We have to write to see, to make evidentiary, the fact that we are poor thinkers, topsy-turvy, sloppy, without nuance. Even after decades doing this, I’m a writer-critic who is un- or underdeveloped intellectually. That’s why I write and what a writer, I think, has to be to grow.

Two. We have to be shocked into what we don’t know, our latent abilities, our undiscovered selves; we have to stop writing to our strengths and stand, thigh-high, in the sump of our weaknesses. If thinking is not my strength and writing is (perhaps I should say composing), then I have to be jolted into seeing how my prose narrative has failed to frame something smart enough for readers to balance and be bewitched by.

Three. What is smart enough?

I think of the thousands of published books and the MFA thesis in progress that are mere writing or mere genre and evince little comprehensive thought as books. How do we get to the largess of our potential themes and a structure to house them and let them run?

With each foray, here’s the question I eventually reach: how do I find the book’s tack? (Tack is a wonderful word, meaning a course of action or conduct, especially one differing from some preceding or other course.) 

To illustrate I’d like to quote a very short section from my book Sanctuary. This chapter, which comes late in the book, is called “Thoughts That Just Occur.” I crafted it with sentences that emerged in the heat of my many drafts and essays on the topic and that fit nowhere else but here. They were just too compelling for me to can. There are three parts.

First, the chapter’s short introduction:

The immediacy of an actual heart attack cancels time. One week of stress brings it on, its reckoning barges in, you’re treated via miraculous interventions, and you survive. Another heart attack follows, and another, and voilà, there’s a pattern. The repeatability and the smooth contour of that pattern makes the time in between—blown away, built back—feel destinal. In rumination, time bends, and there, fear-flagged thoughts rush the stage in droves.

Second, there are twenty-three statements, short or long fragments that state and may or may not enlarge on the disease’s paradoxes. Each begins with the word that; here I quote a few samples.

                That I was ill and now I’m not is incorrect: I’ve always been ill.

                That not dying conjures up Whitman in Song of Myself: “All goes onward and outward / nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, andluckier.”

                That not being sick, how swiftly inured I am to not being sick.

                That my twin sons, now in their thirties, know of my attacks but don’t/can’t know what they’re in for.

And third, 932 words later, I close with the following image:

That we recalcitrant ill are like Janet Leigh in Psycho—fleeing Phoenix with embezzled cash to roll on the bed with her shirt-off lover, the rain pounding the windshield, the wipers flapping at the sheets, a flashing motel sign pulling her over, hauling her in as victim. Which Leigh never sees coming. Why should she? She’s an outlaw; her blindness is her character. Which she also can’t see, for she keeps glancing into the rearview mirror. When a heart attack drags you down the stairs and out on the lawn, screaming for help, there’s a score playing, much like Bernard Herrmann’s music. But we don’t hear it. It’s just too terrifying to be aware of the prelude’s feverish urgency, announcing the knife thrusts coming in our own lives.

I got that chapter and its statements and images thanks to the outline. I wouldn’t have written it as such: instead, I had to discover it among the detritus of my raw pages. It ended up where it is, at its length, and with just that number of words, its anaphoric energy, its epigrammatic pop, its selected extensions. It hit me—big surprise—that just at that point in the narrative I needed something like it, in fact, it, this litany-like testimony to the conundrums of the disease in order to reharmonize for the reader the book’s conflictual core themes. One of those conundrums is that as long as I qualify my illness in language, I suffer it less physically, which is as much help as hindrance. To get close to my disease is to write my way into it, which, as writing, becomes, paradoxically, a measure of my distance from it.

As I say, I found that the key to the book’s growth lay in confronting the  multiple paradoxes of the disease. This was the book’s shape, the key to which was my thinking it out before I got back to writing it out. The plan felt unique and was mirrored in no other book I’d read, whether of style or organization. Though it was still forming, I had something that had begun to think on its own, semi-autonomously, of course. The book and I co-partnered. It gained deck and mast once I saw its self-mutating, self-replicating, and self-sustaining tack.

My surprise with Sanctuary was finding that the process I went through to metabolize the book’s themes was as much a paradox as my recovery: for five years, I thought I was getting better when I was slowly getting worse. I had to become a vegan before I could heal.

With the writing, I had to realize I didn’t know what the book could be until I drafted it according to what I thought it should be. Which wasn’t what it became. With heart disease, I didn’t know there was so much to think about, in addition to the acute attacks and the chronic dread, until I thought about it, which was the hard part.

It may sound like semantics, but for me the shitty first draft is the plan, and the outline it manifests produces the surprise.

So what’s the takeaway for MFA writing students?

1)      Write 100-200 pages

2)      Put it aside, and start thinking and outlining your way into its mire of experiential and relational conflicts

3)      Find an editor, teacher, or skilled reader who can pose questions, see it much larger than you thought it could be, dislodge it from its comfortable sensory hold, explode it from a draft into something shockingly different from what you supposed it might be

4)      Realize that you’re getting somewhere when you have to stop and allow in the demon of a book’s difficulty—that it has to become much harder than you thought it would be before it can unfurl a shape and a sail worthy of the reader’s wind and time.