Planning in pencil and ink

Something occurred to me today about my creative process. I was carefully considering my current predicament (having to plan out and then actually write a second draft of Tallulah) and how it relates to another issue I have: the fact that my current “plan” for Tallulah, the one that I started missing upon attempting to start the third draft a week or so ago, is not a complete story in any way, shape or form. It is, as it has been since the beginning, a collage of scenes and impressions, with dialogue and actual events sometimes being persistent but always feeling temporary – like the lines some illustrators trace with a pencil before doing the real illustrating with ink and making their decisions permanent.

This feeling of “planning in pencil” is not unique to Tallulah. It’s basically one of the only things that my stories all have in common. I think of possibilities and let them remain possibilities; I make plans, but those plans are meant to be temporary, placeholders, until I can come up with something better – but then those plans are also placeholders and, well, you can see where this is going. I have a commitment problem. And not only does it break one of my core tenets of writing, which is to both commit to your decisions and always be free to change your mind, but it also leads to a lot of very weak, indecisive storytelling.

I hate it.

This isn’t some kind of snide, scornful hate; this is leeching, disappointed hate, the kind of hate that only comes from realising that, for the past ten years, I could have been doing things better if I’d just … well, I dunno. I mean I’ve had (and probably still have) depression and social anxiety, which are the perfect candidates to serve as the parents of abysmally low self-esteem and ambition.

But I do remember now, thinking back on it, the stress that came with always making plans that were “locked in”, because they would always change, and I felt so inconsistent, so uncommitted. I guess maybe my current planning in pencil habit was formed out of my prolonged practice of planning more of my stories than I actually told, and because nothing got done I never got to transfer my permanent plans into committed, “actual” writing. So maybe anxiety and depression were less to blame than I think.

Regardless, the fact remains that I want this shit to stop. I’ve told the story of how one night when I was 13 I stayed awake all night and “wrote” an entire book, word-for-word, in my head. It took like eight hours, but it was all written, not just a movie-in-my-head. It was planned in ink, so to speak, as were all of my earliest stories, and those were the ones that had the most staying power. Not to discount the fact that the ideas I liked best were the ones I even bothered to plan to begin with, making it all a bit circular – but I like this story, and for the past almost-three years it hasn’t actually been a story at all, and that needs to change.

So now it might be a case of taking the bits and pieces I’ve currently got and repackaging them as much as I can to turn them into a coherent story, or take the general theme and setting and characters and start over from scratch with a fully laid-out plan, or some combination of the two. I’m thinking the last one. I’m also thinking how the huge revolutionary plan I had the other day is a bit too distracted and pulling me away from the “actual story”, but it’s the same damn anxiety I’ve had about this story that’s recurred so many times before. I need something new to start recurring, which means I have to put something new into action. I need to make this plan, and I need it to be planned in ink; and then I have to actually follow through with it.

I don’t need to re-read my story at this point. I know it well enough. What I need to do is find the story that I actually want to tell. And maybe it’s not the kind of story that I think it will be. Maybe it won’t live up to my standards. Maybe it’ll be really problematic in a lot of ways I don’t forgive other stories for being. But if that’s the case I need to be able to stomach it, rather than denying it and making excuses and going around in evasive circles, getting nowhere fast.

And I miss planning in ink. It feels better. It always felt better. It always feels good to make a decision, whatever it is, in the long run.


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