People used to teach writing by starting out with an outline, but then the sixties happened and the value of the right brain, of discovery, of losing control was understood. The argument went that an outline created too much restriction on creativity and imagination. Pre-writing, as it was called, is a wild, creative and chaotic time. The beginning of a piece is full of possibilities, of limitless potential, where we figure out what we want to say, where we imagine all the ways we could say it. Fiction writers find their voices; their characters might start talking to them. The plot structure or outlines comes after this joyous or terrifying or disheartening chaos.
Writers are encouraged to explore tangents because they might discover better ideas, something sparkling and wonderful. Earlier writers were scolded if they strayed from the outline. The process movement decried this as comparable to a strait-jacket.(Straight-jacket? You’re not supposed to worry about spelling in the pre-writing stage.)
I reveled in the new found freedom of the process movement. I banished my critic for a while. I played with language. My writing grew, my voice sharpened, my images grew richer. This worked great for poems and short stories, even essays, but when it came to finishing a novel, I was wandering in the wilderness—which is supposed to be a good thing in the process movement.
People seemed to forget the rest of the process, though: drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Those require a commitment to form at some point. Being lost became a virtue. I know a writer who has been discovering his book for forty years. That’s a bit much.
For me the answer came from Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. Also Robert McKee’s book and seminar Story. I found vessels to pour my chaos into. I outlined my novels. I even tried outlining each scene using the form from The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. This is the extreme opposite of the process movement. I tried it out. I found Wordsworth was right:
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
Now I’m writing something that demands I jump off into the unknown, that I lose control, and I’m remembering the value of the process approach. I hope when the time comes I’ll find the form and then finish this novel and it will sparkle with both sides of my brain, both sides of chaos and control.