The Writing Road

As Yogi Berra once said: “If you come to a fork in the road, wash it before you put it in your mouth.” Good advice if you ask me.

I can’t just sit down and write off the cuff. I need a plan. I need to know who the characters are, where I want to take them, and where they’re going to end up. Only after all that stuff is nailed down am I ready to write.

Almost all of that preliminary work takes place when I’m doing something else – showering, eating, or working at my day job. Much to my wife’s chagrin, it also happens late at night in bed. I scribble notes. I make doodles. I outline. Sometimes it takes a long time to do all this preparation, but luck favors the prepared, so I do it.

When I finally sit down to type, I have a tall-ish stack of notes and doodles and outlines by my side.

But then I type – and  the plan I spent oh so much time crafting is pushed aside and ignored. My carefully constructed characters are no longer the characters I had once envisioned; they say things I never considered, they do things I had never imagined, they shove the story in directions I never contemplated, and I am transfixed and fascinated by it all.

It is at that moment I know that I am on a creative roll. I’m in explore mode. It’s a kind of heaven.

Since I am so eager to abandon my writing plan once I begin writing, one might assume that I don’t need a plan at all. But I do. I’ve tried working without one, and the results have been uniformly terrible.

I’m not exactly sure why this is, but if I was to guess, I think it is because I need something rigid to rebel against. I need something to thumb my nose at and say, “Pfft. I can do better than that.”

The only other time I have ever abandoned my plans with such reckless delight took place years ago when I embarked on a solo cross-country trip. I had my route, and my maps, and knew where I wanted to settle down each night. Once I got in the car and started driving, however, I was all “Oh. My. God. The world’s biggest rocking chair is just 100 miles north of here!” And, in a twinkling, I was off down a potholed two-lane blacktop passing an alarming number of stores that sold both fireworks and alcohol.

I discovered this big guy on one such unscheduled detour. His name is Big Amos and, if you push a button by his knee, he will beg you to try the shoofly pie.

Sure it might be a colossal waste of time to drive hours out of the way to someplace that might as well be called Lickspittle County just to see a ginormous chair, but none of that mattered to me. I was in explore mode. I found joy in the journey.