Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 19

"Why do I have to outline?"

You don't. Not if you don't want to. But sometimes, you should.

I got this question quite a few times over the last two weeks when I was requiring that my MFA students produce a "crappy outline" for a longish piece of literary journalism they are being asked to write this semester. Many balked.

Probably I would have balked too, when I was a graduate writing student. Then of course, I would have done it anyway, maybe grumbling the whole time.

Here's the thing: I am not a huge fan of the outline. Use one. Don't use one. Whatever works for you. Writers of all stripes and all skill levels can do with or without one, mostly according to personal preference, habit, past experience (good or bad), or complexity of the writing project before them. 

But as an MFA faculty mentor, who in one particular course, in one particular semester, is asking--pushing--writers to write in a form, and with a skill set, that isn't familiar to some, I'm insisting on an outline of some kind.

Those last words are important: an outline of some kind. Of any kind, really.

By this I mean any kind of document/form that helps in organizing one's thoughts. You like the Roman numeral kind we did in high school? Fine. (Though most of us hate that format, and I see very few of those.) 

Maybe an outline is a list. An organized compilation of notes. A linear (or not) progression of ideas. 

One of the best outlines I ever saw from a student was a word collage, fitted onto the shape of the letter W, which for her articulated the double narrative arc she envisioned in the piece. Another outline that rocked was a video montage of the places that would figure into the piece, with background music snippets that spoke to the emotional landscape each location evoked in the writer. Another student wrote what she envisioned to be the beginning sentence of each of about 12 pages. Someone else created a storyboard.

Once committed to producing an outline of some sort, the results often rock. But first, there is usually grumbling, usually connected to the idea that outlining, or advance planning and/or organization of any sort, will stifle or even kill the creative process.

I'm not buying it.

Outlines, organization, planning activities can co-exist with whatever you think of as your unbridled creative urges:  free-writing, meandering on the page, nonlinear drafts, metaphorical or lyrical language, collage or segmented bursts. 

Preparing a *crappy outline* doesn't suggest that you then abandon all the intuitive ways in which you bring a story to the page. It merely asks you to communicate -- mostly to yourself, and sometimes to someone else (usually an editor or instructor) -- some cogent thoughts on what direction you may be heading, what could be included and why, and how you might organize either the material, your time, or your research efforts.
In the end, I believe the best use of an outline is often simply the ACTION of writing it. Something happens in your head as a result of spending the time in thought, in imagining how the piece might develop.
Many times, I've written a crappy outline for a long or complex writing project -- and then put it away, never to truly interact with it again. But the act of doing so had an important effect on my thought process and helped propel me forward with some sense of confidence and curiosity.  
As with many things I am asking of my MFA students this semester, and which writers anywhere might wish to consider: if it makes you uncomfortable as a writer, do it anyway. Writers grow in the discomfort zone.
You can read the other 18 posts in the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.

Images: Flickr/Creative Commons - npslibrarian; Venn diagram chart - terriem; folders - enoch.


Unknown said...

This resonates with me, a mostly non-outliner who often doesn't know what to write until, somehow, I've written it--hence to get going I often doodle fanciful Peter Elbowish spider webs of associative meaning. But now that I'm writing a long piece of literary journalism I've found the crappy outline essential. Emphasis on crappy, tentative, not overly detailed. And subject to change.
A few road signs have saved me from getting completely lost.

Lisa Romeo said...

Precisely, Jennifer! I also do associative lists quite often. Thanks for weighing in.

Anonymous said...

So timely! Just this afternoon I revisited a partially completed outline for a project I had set aside for a while and quickly closed the document in disgust. You have persuaded me to press on with my crappy outline. I especially like the freedom and creativity of the outline examples you describe.