I’d Rather Pants in a Yurt Than Plot at a Popeye’s

This is the preferred method for writing a novel.
This is the preferred method for writing a novel.
Plotting, I now understand, restricts the playful nature of my little story pecker. — Craig D. Williams

For Christ’s sake, stop being an intellect. Get your work done. Don’t worry about what you’re doing. Don’t plan anything. Just do it. Throw it up. Throw it up, and then clean up. I was at a bookstore last night and a book clerk there said, ‘I’m having trouble with a novel I’m writing. I do this, I do that.’ I said, ‘Stop that’ — no outlines, no plans. Get your characters to write the book for you― Ray Bradbury

In the world of book-writers, there’s a scorching debate about whether it’s better to be a Plotter or a Pantser. I’m a Pantser. I pants. I like to pants.

A Plotter plots a course for a story before he ever writes a word of his book. His outline is a rigid foundation that helps keep his novel on track. For him, the outline is the bony skeleton that holds the whole thing upright. The actual writing is just a matter of hanging some flesh on those bones.

One of my favorite authors, John Irving, is a Plotter. He claims he knows the last sentence of a novel before he writes the opening line. This is the one and only thing I can’t stand about John Irving.

A Pantser is so-called because she flies by the seat of her pants. A Pantser would rather lick boiled mackerel than outline her book. Margaret Atwood is one famous Pantser. She lets her story and its characters drag her along where they may — unencumbered by some predetermined schedule of adventures — prior to applying structure in later drafts. “I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first,” she says. “It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.”

Stephen King is another Pantser. He publishes roughly five great books in an afternoon, and once said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers, who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” Ha. Good one, Steve.

If writing a book were like taking a road trip, a Plotter would mark out every turn on a map weeks in advance of leaving his driveway. He’d prearrange all the hotel stays, the meals stops and the pee pee breaks; he’d stick faithfully to the highway, mind all the signs, and arrive on-time to his destination without having a single unforeseen experience.

A Pantser on that same trip might start out with nothing but a vague idea of where she’s going. Maybe all she has is a starting point, a greasy bag of Fruit Roll-Ups, and a gut feeling she should head westward. She believes too much planning rules out the possibility of something amazing happening by accident. Could be she’ll eschew the highway for the scenic road along the lake and get sidetracked by a cardboard sign that says “Alpaca Petting, Next Turn.” On that alpaca farm, maybe she meets an old Tuvan throat singer, who invites her into his yurt for a bite to eat and a wee puff of opium.

So, while our Plotter is standing in another Popeye’s Fried Chicken line at Rest Stop 156B, nervously eyeing the clock, our Pantser is floating in an alpaca-laden narcotics dream, eating peanut butter and quince sandwiches in a breezy yurt.

I wasted a lot of years not writing a book because I thought my imagination needed to work in advance, that my creativity should be clairvoyant. I believed I first needed an outline, cohesive character sketches and a whiteboard filled with post-its clarifying every peak and fall of the action and connecting all the story arcs into a tidy little denouement.

Or whatever.

But that’s just bananas. Adhering to some inflexible framework, at least in fiction writing, at least in the first draft, is a real boner killer for my personal imagination. I can’t possibly know, for example, when a character will eat soup — and what kind of soup — and where she got the soup — and what the soup means to the rising tension of the scene. I’m nodding off just thinking about this fucking soup already.

I wish I would have realized in my twenties there was such a thing as a Pantser, and that I was one of them. I’d probably have written a couple dozen books by now. But it wasn’t until recently, in my fifties, that I understood my imagination was not a fact-bound fascist. It prefers to ramble about the grassy field of my brain like a free-range chicken, running fenceless, pecking where it pleases, uninhibited by stupid numbered lists and boring timelines. Plotting, I now understand, restricts the playful nature of my little story pecker.

I’ve always been a great admirer of the late hippie television painter and Caucasian-Afro pioneer, Bob Ross, who was both a maverick and a snooze-fest.

Bob was a flaming Valium, and I loved watching him. He was a great role model for Pantsers like me, and our free-range imaginations. You never saw Bob outline a painting before he whipped up the greatest goddamn Rocky Mountain snow cap you’ve ever seen. Bob didn’t pencil-in lines, then fill them without straying outside the boundaries. He just went balls-out, slapping on the paint with nothing imprisoning his brilliant brain — except that tragic Afro.

And here’s the absolute best thing …

Bob’s mistakes were part of his process. They led him to creative choices he never could have planned in advance. His errors weren’t errors at all. He called them “happy accidents.”

So, here’s to you Bob Ross, and all of your Happy Accidents, including that one with your hair. You are my pantsing hero. I still can’t believe I watched you all those years, but didn’t get the message until I was in my fifties.

Creativity happens in the moment. It isn’t scheduled in a Day Planner, and it doesn’t wait online at Popeye’s Chicken at Exit 156B at noon precisely. A caged brain-chicken isn’t a happy, productive brain-chicken. It needs to run free. And if it inadvertently lays a triangular egg — or scurries into a yurt for a toke and a quince — or takes a ride on the back of a checkered alpaca in a tutu — well, none of those things are mistakes.

They’re just happy pantsing axidents. Oops.


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