Thursday, November 25, 2010

Post hoc planning

Transfixed by time's arrow

My English teachers in high school were all clear on the importance of preparation. A good outline was the sine qua non of good writing. It provided the armature on which one could construct a solid, coherent, and well-organized essay. To drive home the point, most of the time they insisted that we students hand in our outlines together with our finished compositions. I could follow their reasoning, but I did not find it compelling enough for compliance.

As the wild and rebellious youth I was [pause for amusement of the LOL variety], I naturally preferred to dash off my papers at one go and then sketch out an outline, executing my instructions backward. My outlines were thus more like abstracts, and they certainly weren't planning tools. Since my assignments routinely came back with A's on them (and little notes of approbation and encouragement in the margins), I saw no reason to change my perverse practice.

A colleague inadvertently reminded me of this as we had lunch together at an Italian (or, rather, Italian-themed) restaurant near our college. She was an English professor who had been lured into management, but the composition instructor still lingered within her, lurking just below the surface. It emerged as we forked up our pasta and she asked a question about my novel.

“You know, Zee,” she said conversationally, “every work of composition is seeking to answer a question. What was the question you were trying to answer with your novel?”

Fortunately my mouth was full and it was impolite to answer immediately. I continued to chew in a genteel and ruminative fashion, taking the opportunity to compose a response. Since I obviously didn't have time to write an outline, I had to dash off something extemporaneously. It had, of course, never occurred to me before that I might have been asking a question. Nevertheless, my colleague was doing me the honor of treating me like a serious writer instead of as a madcap, slapdash chronicler of family lore, legend, rumor, and scandal. She deserved a considered answer.

Rather to my surprise, I realized that I had a good answer, and it was her question that had crystallized it in my mind. Since I talk nearly as much with my hands and with my voice, I put my fork down and spoke.

“No one has ever asked me that before,” I said. “I think, however, I was exploring the answers to two questions. On the one hand, I was writing about the forces that keep a large and contentious family together.” Suiting actions to words, I raised my right hand, facing the open palm to the left. “On the other, it was a question of what causes a family to fly apart.” My left hand mirrored my right, in opposition. “The centripetal force in our family—the binding energy—came from my grandmother. As the matriarch, she could pull us all into the neutral zone of her home, where feuds were not allowed and bickering was relegated to the deep background, out of sight. She was velvet-lined steel. Holiday gathering were conducted under a flag of truce.

“Once she was gone, however, all of the centrifugal forces came into play. My uncle felt free to set aside his wife and move in with his girlfriend. And my godfather tried to take advantage of the vacuum to seize control of part of the estate. The family shattered into contending factions, playing balance-of-power games with temporary alliances of convenience and a series of countervailing lawsuits. Those experiences provided the raw material for my novel, which is a fact-based work of fiction. I tried to sort out the motivations and make sense of the collapse and reconstruction of the extended family.”

I'm not sure that what I said actually came out as smoothly as I've rendered it here, although I've had teachers tell me that I talk the way I write (which is perhaps just a little scary—but I swear that I don't do air quotes or air parentheses). At the very least, however, what I said had the advantage of being true. Like an organism that had grown too large to survive in its ecological niche, my family fissioned into chunks that reorganized themselves into smaller and more stable versions of the original model. That's not a surprise when you think about it, is it?

The chunks have experienced a wide variety of fates. My godfather's proved unstable, breaking apart further and scattering across a great geographical expanse. My uncle's group—well, it was never even really his group. His divorce alienated both his spouse and their children. My father's chunk has been the most cohesive, perhaps because it was one of his sons, my kid brother, who pieced the family dairy farm back together and restored our reputation in the Central Valley agricultural community. That almost gives the story a happy ending, except that life and death go on. One doesn't write “The End” on the last page of a family story and expect it to mean very much.

My colleague nodded her head in satisfaction at my answer. I felt as if I had passed a test. At that moment, I realized that the questions were inherent in my writing project, even if I had not been consciously aware of them at the time. She had nudged me out of my own story and reminded me that I was my manuscript's omniscient observer. For an instant, it felt that I had figured out all of the answers to life's little questions as they were posed in the drama of my family—and rendered into a fictional story that I could tell to others. It was a pleasant illusion, but I will never really know what motivated some of the actions of the real people in my life, even if I think I succeeded in winding up the springs of their fictional counterparts and “explaining” their actions.

It's only a story.

And, as I noted a moment ago, real life continues beyond the pages of fictional life. My father lacks the diplomatic touch that his mother possessed in superabundant measure and he finds it difficult to deal with willful offspring (like yours truly). Too bad. It has led to our present estrangement and my absence from today's Thanksgiving dinner. (I find it difficult to break bread with someone who calls me a liar. I'm sort of sensitive that way.) Mom is naturally suffering from the collateral damage, so I've promised her I'll show up for Christmas. I'll pretend there's a flag of truce fluttering over the family farm.

I can do that much, at least. And perhaps I'll learn the answers to more questions that I don't know I have.


Kathie said...

Grandpa was the glue that held my paternal family together, and following his death our family splintered too, chiefly over money (surprise, surprise). I mostly got along pretty well with my dad, but my mother was a whole 'nother story. Among her bad behavior, on any holiday or family observance she couldn't let the morning's preparations at home go without picking a huge fight with me over some pretext or other; I got to the point I'd just "play possum" in bed for as late in the morning as I could manage, out of sheer avoidance, although she eventually got wise to my ploy and would march into my room and berate me for faking being asleep. At the risk of playing psychologist without a license, I developed the theory that she had as a child found such days failed to live up to her hopes and expectations, so in parenthood she'd pick a fight first so she could scapegoat me instead of accepting responsibility for her own inevitable disappointments.

Re outlining vs. writing first: I long ago found that I needed to start the writing process just to get myself going, then once I'd see where I'm headed I could start sketching an outline for the rest. Then in the late '80s I watched an educational series on PBS ("The Right [something-or-other]") apparently intended to accompany a freshman-level college English composition course. One of the techniques it taught was "pre-writing" -- exactly what I'd been doing all this time -- and while validation isn't actually necessary, it still can be nice (or at least not unpleasant) to receive.

I hope it's not too crass to inquire on the status of your novel manuscript.

Zeno said...

My grandfather spent the last half-dozen years of his life as an invalid, during which time he had virtually no hand in running the dairy farm. My grandmother also survived him by another half-dozen years, so she was the pre-eminent member of her generation for more than a decade. We found out that we couldn't function as a group without her.

My manuscript has been in the hands of the editor-in-chief (and, presumably, his two outside reviewers) for three months. That's about the length of time he said it would take to render a decision. So ... any day now?

Eamon Knight said...

My younger son, who is a pretty good writer (of fiction or essay), is one of those who can just write the whole thing, sorting out the mess as he goes. As a consequence, he was driven up the wall by his high school courses where they insisted that he hand in outlines for critique before he wrote the body (or follow some even more elaborately mapped-out process).

High school is evil.

Kathie said...

Oh, forgot to mention that when I pre-write, it's not necessarily at the beginning of the work. In fact, it's usually somewhere in the middle -- just whatever's easiest to do, to "prime the pump" in order to avoid writer's block. And, as noted earlier, the outline may come somewhat later, after my pre-writing gives me a feel for the piece.

Of course, one advantage to translating is that it was the original author (and not I) who suffered all these agonies :-)

Karen said...

I write scientific papers, which come, to some extent, pre-outlined, at least as far as the major blocks go. But I did an exercise once (under protest) where I outlined a paper after having written it, and the result led me to tightening up the piece and generally making a better paper.

So, now I outline. Not rigorously, but it does seem to help.

Blake Stacey said...

My own suspicion about school writing assignments was that most of the requirements were invented so that teachers could have something to grade in a mechanical way. Five paragraphs? Check. Last sentence of first paragraph is the topic sentence? Check. Five references, no more than one of which is an encyclopaedia? Check. MLA-formatted bibliography? ... and so forth and so on.

Karen said...


I'm glad you promised to be home for Christmas. I understand your reaction to your father, but for the love of the rest of your family you may just have to write him off as a jerk and talk to him as little as possible. I suspect, long-term, it's better than being at loggerheads all the time.

Besides, from what you've written, it's clear that your minor nephews and nieces need Uncle Zeno's influence. :-)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Very few writing diktats, in my opinion, fit all. The thing to do is try one and see if it works; if so, use it; if not, dump it.

When I outline "how to translate" I always stress that this is One Way of Many, not The One True Way. My students' problem is usually that they have no way at all...

Zeno said...

Sometimes my suspicions run along the same lines as Blake Stacey's. In general, I do not like to be unduly prescriptive about creative work, and this includes math solutions. Amusingly enough, this occasionally puts me at odds with certain students, who are dismayed I won't tell them exactly what technique or procedure I want them to use. (One that works, of course.)

As for writing, I have already noted that I'm inclined to generate prose spontaneously. I don't, however, dismiss the utility of outlining as an organizational tool. I resorted to it when my manuscript reached its midpoint and I was puzzling over options to bring it to a good conclusion. I guess I'm also one of those pre-writers.

Zeno said...

Thanks for the comment, Karen. I agree that I shouldn't let my father's toxicity separate me from the rest of the family. I am particularly concerned by the collateral damage that could be inflicted on my mother, who is stuck between two obstreperous men she loves with her whole heart. (Dad, bless his shriveled soul, has already tried to exploit this situation.) A quick in-and-out for Xmas dinner will give me the cover of the crowd scene so I can visit with the extended family while minimizing (or eliminating) any one-on-one time with the estranged parent. I'm sure overnight visits are now a thing of the past.

Exl Blogger said...

When I used to write proposals and technical reports for a consulting company, the rules was to write chapters 2 through N first, then write chapter 1 the Introduction after you have some clue. Finally, we'd write the Executive Summary, which was basically a stripped down chapter 1 that could be used for an elevator pitch.

Fighting this approach is a whole school of thought insisting on writing "methodologies" like outlining, using paradigms and so on. Programmers fight this all the time. It's called "anything but programming", so they make flow charts, outlines, specifications, data digrams and everything but working code. Then, they start to code, and find out that all of that stuff was wrong and could never work.

This kind of stuff is probably not worthless, but it can be pernicious and costly.

Interrobang said...

I'm an actual working writer and I don't outline. If I'm writing software help, I do build a topic structure, but that isn't quite the same, nor does it ever remain unchanged between project inception and final invoice.