I like reading creative nonfiction. I even enjoy writing it from time to time. Recently I read In fact: The best of creative nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind, a collection of essays and personal narratives on topics from Jewish divorce ceremonies to racism and family dynamics. I admire the way these writers use fiction techniques, like using dramatic openings, plotting the story and showing rather than telling to craft their stories. The essay that stood the most though was Gray Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain by Floyd Skloot who suffered brain damage after a particularly nasty virus. What is remarkable is that despite his, in his own words “humiliating” affliction, Floyd is able to produce a piece of intelligent and engaging writing. The essay made me aware of how much I take for granted my ability to recall details, to process and transmit information and to make logical connections, which are all very handy skills for a writer. But it also made me aware of how much of the difficulty I experience in getting words on paper is a manifestation of my own internal dynamic. In a note at the end of the narrative, Floyd states that he constructed the piece “a paragraph at a time”. He says “I have learned to trust that when I am jotting down isolated thoughts or episodes during the period of time that I’m thinking about an essay, those pieces will eventually belong somewhere in that essay or one of the others I’m engaged with then, because they all tend to emerge from the same emotional state of mind or complex of feelings.” Thinking about this now I am aware that I’ve been viewing my current novel as one massive ordeal requiring a marathon effort. I’ve been seeing it as a single, unremitting entity, and this has made it almost impossible for me to see the finer details.
All this leads me to contemplate the question of whether to plot or not – something I’ve been exploring with Swami Guru Sam. When I was younger I couldn’t imagine writing to a plan. The allure of diving in head first was strong. I loved discovering twists in the plot I hadn’t anticipated. I would start to write with a only general idea of the geography of the story, preferring to map it as I went, following each step with another, but now I’ve come to understand this can be counter-productive and, as (I hope) my writing has matured, I’ve feel I must now give some thought to structure and try to develop a strategy, to plot a path. I don’t have the memory or the cognitive vigor of a twenty-something year old to write a whole book flying by the seat of my pants. I don’t have time to write like that anymore, since it requires a lot more effort in the following drafts. It’s impossible to write a book and get it right the first time, but it might be possible to lessen the workload in subsequent drafts by writing to a blueprint. And of course blueprints can be amended if necessary. I can still write a paragraph at a time, but now I have a better idea of what the next paragraph should be about.