April 7, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals
We’re reading the Romantics now in Brit Lit. One of the drums they beat (and they beat a lot of drums) was that the best poetry — real poetry — is conceived in spontaneous emotion. Wordsworth said it like this: “…poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity…”
Wordsworth was a seat-of-his-pants writer. And a genius: He composed many of his works both in the moment and in his head and only put them to paper later.
Cormac McCarthy occupies a similar place in the world of novel writing (both the seat-of-his-pants and the genius parts). Like Wordsworth, he writes out of spontaneity. His art depends on the free movement of characters as yet unformed. And more than anything else — so goes his logic — it’s the decisions of those characters that determine plot. And how do you know who a character is until you’ve given him some space to live?
Now compare those guys to John Irving. In a 1986 interview with The Paris Review, Irving says this: “…I knew everything [about the novel] that was going to happen, in advance. That never hurts. I want to know how a book feels after the main events are over…” He also cites the importance of authorial control, particularly the confidence with which a narrator can speak when the author knows the ins and outs of the plot: “The authority of the storyteller’s voice—of mine, anyway—comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin.” He goes on to say that his editor referred to this style as the enema approach. Study, prepare, and hold it all in till you can’t.
As different as they are in approach, McCarthy and Irving are considered two of the greatest living American writers. So which is it? Write by the seat of my pants or plan it out? Speed or calculation? Heart or head?
I think I’ve determined (for myself anyway) that this is not really an either-or proposition. The two methods, in their stripped down versions, lie at either ends of a spectrum, and I’ve written books along the whole length of it. Dragon Haint was a lark. I started with the image of a falling rock flattening a house full of bad guys and just ran with it from there. Catastropolis had more design to it, but not much more. And as for Blood Bound, John Irving himself would be proud of my planning and plotting.
The work I’m in now seems to lie somewhere among these. I’ve planned to stop at some major attractions, but the roads between them are pretty wide open. So half way through my fourth book, I’m still figuring out the right proportion for me.
Paul tells his church to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, meaning that they should take the truths of the gospel and go, move forward, live them out, and see what a faithful God does with them.
No, writing is not the Gospel, but I do think it can be approached in this same way. You know the possibilities that lie along that spectrum of planning and spontaneity, so choose one (the way you live your life is probably indicative of the choice that fits you best) and work it out, if not in fear and trembling then at least in hard work and a willingness to take risks.
And do this: choose a spot between the extremes. You’ll find both “lucky” digressions that you could not have devised with a lifetime of careful planning, as well as clear paths through murky passages that you could not have navigated except for that clear objective you built beyond it.
These are exactly the things you want to learn about your own process: that is, the right proportion of planning and reaction out of which your best work comes.