Among writers, the question is this one:
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
When I first heard this question, I immediately linked it to my graduate adviser at the University of Texas at Austin. After I passed my Ph.D. exams, he said,
Just think of finishing your dissertation this way: put your seat in a chair and stay there until you’re done.
Having confessed to being a sprinter rather than a marathon runner in last week’s post, you might have already guessed where I come out between these two types.
Instead of labeling myself, however, I’ll show you a picture:
This picture of how I am planning a year of book touring looks a lot like the way I “plotted” Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. More about this trip later, but for now, you can just witness some of the complexity.
Back in October 2011, when I was living in Brooklyn, New York, and taking care of our grandson Owen by day, I made up a timetable for writing. Then I blogged about it, making myself more accountable to my readers.
I respect deadlines, and when I announce one, I usually come through. I’ll sit in my seat even after my shoulders, neck, and arms begin to hurt. (I know, “sitting is the new smoking” and I need to change that habit.)
But being a “pantser” refers to more than the location of one’s derrière! It also means that a writer finds joy in the journey itself and wants to discover her way to the plot. Not surprisingly, this term is used most frequently by fiction writers.
Good memoirs read like fiction. They require narrative arcs. There’s an art and a science to developing such arcs. I placed my life stories, most of which were written in short segments, into a series of questions meant to interrogate the narrative of my childhood.
Did you have a choice to become Mennonite or not?
What was going on in the church and in the outside world that influenced the answer to that question?
What happened to your family after your father bought the farm?
To answer these questions before the end of writing a draft was to become a “plotter.” I tried on that role and took lessons from some pros. Here are my notes on how to storyboard:
If you’ve read Blush, you might or might not recognize this pattern in the story. I had difficulty making my life fit into the form.
I saw my model as being most like Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, which I reviewed in 2008.
My guess is that Mildred was a pantser, whose reminiscences were woven together beautifully through the “high spirits” still evident in her approach to life, and who had a great deal of discipline over her daily habits, writing this book one story at a time.
If you are a writer yourself or contemplating becoming one, you will enjoy the video below. You can see that the question of whether to write from an outline (plot) or from curiosity about your characters (pants) can throw writers into a tizzy of conversation.
But whether or not you take time to watch the video, I hope you respond with some stories of your own in the comment section below. Do you prefer to discover your way to the finish line by following your intuition and “high spirits”? Or do you need to chart a very careful path in advance? Something in between? Something different depending on the circumstances?