There are times in life when the path you’ve laid out for yourself is both clear and unwavering. You set out upon it and are led to the exact place you intended when you began. The turns and rough terrain come as no surprise and you easily maneuver through them, never breaking stride. These times in life are more often than not rare, and while straightforward and achievable, are sometimes quite bland. Life isn’t always about the destination; in many cases, it’s about the unexpected journey.
The same can be said about writing. A little over a year ago, I sat down at my computer with a red notebook full of incoherent ramblings and a vague, general premise of how those thoughts would form a story. I put on my analyst’s hat and over the course of the next several months, paved a solid path from beginning to end of how I intended to tell my story. An outline it was; a novel it would soon become. As long as I stayed on the straight and narrow.
Today I find myself hacking through the forest with nothing but a leatherman and a faint recollection of my original route, which has long since been misplaced. And such is the expectantly unexpected journey of a writer.
I’ve learned that writers tend to fall into one of two categories; outliners or pantsers. Outliners can sometimes spend exuberant amounts of time planning, plotting, and pin-pointing every scene or conversation in order to feel they have a firm grasp on where the story is headed. Pantsers simply put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards, and let the story grab them by the hand and drag them along. Two very different schools of thought, but both with the same destination in mind.
When I decided to write a novel, I was certain I was an outliner. Being an analyst by trade, it just felt wrong to sit down with nothing but an idea and a blank Word document. I needed a structure to follow, a plan to lead me from point A to point B. So that’s what I did.
But as I began to take the outline that I had so meticulously put together from bullet points and scene numbers to a flowing piece of narrative that was both engaging and vivid, I noticed something strange. I kept veering off my designated path. I’d scramble to push through the shrubbery and uneven terrain to find my way back, but what I found instead was stilted dialogue and shoddy writing. My efforts to get back on track were causing more harm than good.
For awhile, I was frustrated and bitter about the poor craftsmanship I had put together. Desperately re-writing small segments over and over to try to “fix” what was obviously broken. But the more I tried to follow the road I had paved, the more my story seemed to be slipping away from me. I was fighting a current that was simply never going to let me win.
So slowly I began to distance myself from the road, keeping it in sight, but only as a guide rather than a rule. At some point, I stopped looking at it entirely and turned my focus to the beauty, intrigue, and unpredictability of the unknown in front of me. While I may not take the path I had originally chosen for my story, I’m fairly certain that I’ll find my way to its conclusion; and likely have a lot more enjoyment along the way. Remember, while the destination may be our goal, it’s the path we take to get there that tells the real story.