Friday, March 1, 2013

No Outlines

There is an excellent article in my latest New Yorker by Nathan Heller and its title is "Just Saying: The anti-theatrical theatre of Annie Baker." I'm not familiar with this playwright, but will check her work out after finding out a bit about her. What struck me most (as often happens, I guess; you just find things that reinforce your beliefs sometimes) is what she says to her class about outlines. She doesn't do them, and will negotiate that into her contracts. She says "Hollywood hurts itself when everybody outlines screenplays" and says that she can sit around and talk about the ideas and the story for hours, but was but will not outline "[b]ecause by the time I finish the outline, it's dead."

I agree completely and have found the same thing. I've tried to outline projects and if I am sucessful in getting an outline done, the story never gets done. It doesn't matter to me anymore. There is no point writing when I have already discovered everything. Maybe it's just laziness, but I just cannot get motivated to write what I already have figured out.

The problem with admitting this, however, is that the polar opposite approach seems to be the idea that the characters just take over and the writer is an unwitting conduit for the expression of the characters. This embarasses me and at its worst there are links made between ink and blood, etc. That's far too grand, to me. I don't trust someone who says "the character just took over." I understand it a little bit, but come on, does anyone really believe that? Of course it's ludicrous.

But there is a bit of truth to it, I suppose, if you just pull back a little. You encounter these problems. You don't know where the story is going. Then you have someone pick up a phone, and the writing comes easily, the dialogue does get written quickly, and you DO surprise yourself, characters DO say things you don't expect.

You can't relinquish complete control, though. You want this kind of automatic writing, because it's easy. But one of the things that makes it so easy is it doesn't matter. You discard as much of it as you need to. You decide in the end, of course.

That's what makes both poles -- outlining and predetermining outcomes vs. spewing everything onto the page and letting it stand as is -- dangerous (if writing from the position of privilege most of us occupy can ever be dangerous). Too often the opposite of outlining stories is exercises intended to encourage the intuitive writing that comes of temporarily ceding control which actually end up having the same effect as outlining but seem to give the illusion that intuition is at work.

I've read a few of these on blogs by writing students. I remember one which involves the writer interviewing a character to get to know them. What happens then? Many students end up having the character react in a hostile way and refuse to answer questions. This automatically seems sucessful, since the author has relinquished control, supposedly. But not really. They want a character who is powerful so they make the character behave as if he has power. There is nothing to learn in this exercise except what character is supposed to be.

I've come to the conclusion, myself, that character sketches and so on are useless. You can only know a character in retrospect. You can only know them when you are done their story and have a chance to reflect upon it.

I can't prove it, but it works for me.

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