E.L. Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Another writer cautions that: “Writing without an outline is like driving a car without lights.” Ah, that must be my problem. I need to create more detailed outlines, know my characters inside out, plot each step and word and nuance to get the best story.
Then I read another writer’s help book, and the words hit me right between the ideas: “I never use an outline. It’s far too limiting. You have to let it flow, allow the characters to discover who they are.” How will I ever master this craft if the professionals can’t agree?
The lyrics of Ricky Nelson’s 1985 hit song flash through my mind: “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself,” or as my Christian upbringing has edited it: “Don’t try to please others; you will never succeed. Please God and all these things will take care of themselves.”
I will never write the way you do. I am particular about the way the words look on the paper, whether I am typing or writing by hand. Can’t help it. I’m the one who always mourned the ugly mistake on the first page of my new scribbler in elementary school. I never go to the store without a list (yes, this is partly due to my age; I can’t remember more than two things at once anymore). I don’t shift the car into drive until I have mentally mapped my route to the next store or place of business. I need some sort of outline. I am not a great problem solver and would be in an impossible quandary if I didn’t know the basic ending of my story before beginning.
One particular writer I know is so full of ideas she can hardly get them on paper fast enough. Doesn’t matter what it looks like, it will all come out in the end. And, for her, it does.
In light of these apparent contradictions, I arrive at two conclusions: Firstly, we are not all created the same. Equal yes, but different. I will always plan, especially for longer works. If I don’t, it will be so much drivel. And secondly, we need to know ourselves and the gifts God has given us. We often waste time chastising ourselves because we don’t write like this person or that person. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and we have not written anything at all.
Near my computer I have taped some of the words of Carolyn Arends’ famous song, and I read them often: “She works on her novel most every day / If you laugh, she will say…Seize the day! / Seize whatever you can / ‘Cause life slips away just like hourglass sand / Seize the day! Pray for grace from God’s hand / and nothin’ will stand in your way—Seize the day!”
So if you need the headlights, switch them on. If you love the adventure of proceeding by your driving lights alone, go for it. Just do it.