I’ll confess that this post is driven as much by defensiveness as it is a desire to educate. My recent review of the book Creative You and my interview with co-author David B. Goldstein has reminded me of something I’ve long known from interviews with artists; every creative has his or her own process. That said, the process of many artists eschews advance planning, and more than once I’ve had someone tell me that my inclination to map out my creative projects means I’m closing myself off to creative possibility.
Oh yeah? Well, go lump it.
While at my final MFA in Writing residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I shared with two individuals–a VCFA instructor and a graduate assistant–how I have used my wallpaper whiteboard to map out each chapter of my memoir-in-progress, specifically the four narrative lines that run through the book. The first photo you see here is a close-up of the first four chapters of the book. Each line–red, blue, green and black–represents one of the “stories” being told in the memoir. The second photo below shows all forty-seven chapters.
Asking a reader to follow four ongoing stories–even when they are intertwined and all center on a single narrator–is asking a lot. I want to ensure that none of the lines fall away for too long, and thus no longer being fresh in the reader’s mind when I return to them. I also want to ensure that they move in harmony with each other, since they are interrelated.
Not shown here is my first narrative map. I have a complete draft of the memoir, which I wrote over two years and four instructors while in the VCFA program. The focus and structure of the book evolved significantly over that two-year period. Before making this narrative map I first read through the book and made a different one, showing how the narrative lines appeared in that draft of the book. That map looked nothing like what you see here. Certain lines disappeared for chapters at a time. Others spiked then dropped then spiked then dropped. My instructors had helped me hone each chapter down to a tight, well-paced read, but they didn’t work together as a whole.
The lines you see here are what I believe they should look like. I have now revised eleven chapters, the first two of six sections of the book. Each morning I sit down with a photograph of that chapter’s narrative map and eye it in relationship to the chapters surrounding it. (I’m working off of photos because I needed my whiteboard back for other creative projects.) When I perform my rewrite with my favorite fountain pen, I know what narrative lines I need to advance, but my creative brain then finds the right way to do it with the right words. The rewrite itself is not on my map.
Both my instructor and the graduate assistant seemed genuinely impressed with my process, with the latter asking me to send her all of my photos so she could study them more closely. She now plans to do something similar with her work-in-progress, as soon as she can track down some whiteboard wallpaper. (I told her she could order it through several school-supply or office-supply web sites.)
So yes, I’m a bit defensive about my need to plan my creativity. We’ve had this debate here before, that of planning vs. seat-of-the-pants. But what Creative You explains, and what we all should know intuitively, is that it isn’t really a black-and-white choice. Anyone who begins a creative process blind is in fact going in with some thoughts and intentions, even if they’re subconscious, while anyone engaging creatively by following a road map is going to recognize when a spark indicates the need for a detour.
To what extent does your creative process involve planning vs. spontaneity?