Anne Beattie has been coming up a lot lately. By just happenstance I started reading an interview of her on the Paris Review's website where they have writer interviews collected by decade. And then I received the latest Poets & Writers and there she is on the cover. Not sure why this happens, where a writer or idea comes up and then all of a sudden there are connections to it everywhere, but one should listen when this type of serendipity happens.
So I am.
In the interview on Paris Review Beattie says that she rarely preforms a story and prefers to allow it t materialize on the page as she's writing the first draft.
I have written quite a bit about how beginning writers and those writers who have day jobs and families should try to craft even a rudimentary outline of the story they intend to write as a road map to refer back to when life takes them away from the manuscript. After all, we are not all of us able to sit down every morning in one of our three homes with beautiful views and a full office to spend the next six hours picking up our writing from where we left off the day before. An outline is a tool and asset that we use to save ourselves from the business of our lives, among other things.
However, there is a but to that. I do think it is important that we not follow the road map dogmatically and reflexively. Creativity comes when it comes and we have to be open to accepting new ideas as we write, evaluating them and seeing if they work.
And thus, Beattie's quote:
"Because I don’t work with an outline, writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock. In the context of a story, a fairly boring thought in a character’s head can work better than a brilliant one, and a brilliantly laid out structure can be so much worse for a story than one that is more haphazard."
I mostly agree. I think the last piece of this quote refers to the notion that it can be a lot more fun and valuable to diverge from a road map, but it's still important to have a sense of where you are going if your life isn't like Beattie's (three homes, teaching position, ability to write for an extended period of time every day, etc.)
However, the idea that writing a story can be a lot like crossing a stream from rock to rock is a good one. I recently told a friend that my work consists of solving writing problems all day that end up becoming books. Sometimes, in the midst of solving a problem, I diverge from the road map and this leads to a more satisfying outcome.
This got me to thinking about the maxim of improvisational sketch comedy, Never say no. I thought, when writing a short story especially it may be important to never say no. If a character or thought leads you somewhere, follow it. See where it leads.
So the larger point, never say no to where a story wants to go.