“. . the Destiny of my life was cast on seeing for the first time an ‘Apollo’ in the handsome Captain Cowin of the 73rd Regiment. Even at this long period I blush to make this romantic confession, nevertheless the age of 12 may offer an excuse. ”
I was reading the memoir of Lady Dowling*, a very distant forebear of my husband. I was already intrigued, but this was the passage that captured me. Three years later, I have finished putting together a short biography of this flighty, restless woman (for details, see under Publications on this site). What I’ve learned in the process includes:
Never believe a memoirist (they leave out all the interesting parts),
Never trust a man who keeps a journal (they put in all the interesting parts), and
Never think your research won’t be contradicted by your next search of Trove.
I’ve also learned that I’m not alone in grappling with a million writing dilemmas. With this knowledge, I’m continuing to explore the border zones of creativity in the portrayal of historical people and events.
*Dowling, H. “Memoir of the Early Life of Harriott Mary Dowling Nee Blaxland: Or Sketches of India and Australia in Old Times.” In Dowling family papers 1767-1905: Manuscripts, Oral History & Pictures, State Library of New South Wales, Catalogue DLMSQ 305, Item 5, 1875.
There I was — frozen — staring down a course requirement to produce a 30,000 word collection of short stories. The keyboard stared right back, as keyboards do, the indifferent sods. As the days till deadline diminished, my calculations generated predictions of having to generate 1,000 words a day, then 2,000 words, then 3,000. When the target of 5,000 was on the horizon, I panicked. I raced to find my lecturer. He wasn’t in his office, nor in the coffee queue. Peering through the small window set in the door of the lecture room, I spied him. As he paused for breath, he glanced in my direction — perhaps it was something to do with the wild gesticulations of distress.
He came to the door and, opening it a crack, snapped, ‘What?’
I began to gabble about my plight.
‘Stop,’ he hissed. ‘Listen carefully. You will type the word the over and over again. I don’t care if there are 30,000 thes. If, perchance, you start to find the word the becomes boring, then do feel free to use some other words as they occur to you.’ He closed the door and turned back to his class.
It was novel advice and, desperate as I was, I followed it. It only took a paragraph of thes before I was so bored that I began to write.
I’ve never heard anyone else prescribe similar measures but the experience meant that I am intrigued by the distinction that is often drawn between pantsers and planners. Both terms describe ways in which writers tend to go about the writing process.
The term pantsers is said to come from the expression ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ which originally arose to describe a pilot flying without instruments. Pantsers write their first draft in a flow of ideas, possibly guided by some overarching theme or end-point. Pantsers are open to following new thoughts and directions as they arise during the writing process. Stephen King, in his fascinating book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, describes a similar drafting process he calls ‘writing with the door closed’, i.e. getting the ideas down while leaving your inner critic outside (the inner critic is allowed inside the door when re-drafting). The advantages of this approach include that it’s a faster way to get the ideas out from between the ears and on the page.
Planners (or plotters) prepare detailed outlines for the overall structure and individual sections of the work ahead before they begin. Planners tend to build their first draft in layers, i.e. outline, more detailed outline, even more detailed outline, and then the writing within each section. The advantages of this approach include that you know what’s ahead. When planners get a new idea, they down tools and test the potential new direction by revising their outline before they proceed.
Both pantsers and planners extoll the virtues of their processes in reducing anxiety in facing down the blank page, which probably tells you more about the mental health challenges of writing than the relative efficacy of either approach. However, as for most false dichotomies, there need be no opposition between the two approaches. No doubt, many of us adopt these processes at different stages and for different works. For example, author, Victoria Strauss, describes her transition toward a hybrid approach in her blog — ‘Pantser to Planner: How I changed my writing style’.
Luckily for me, while I’m by nature closer at the planner end of the continuum, so far I haven’t had to resort to the the strategy again.