Writing on Fire: From Outline to Orgasm

by Sam Coale, Professor of English.

When I plan to write something–after emptying wastebaskets, walking dogs, fiddling about, anything to prevent that initial moment of staring at a blank computer screen as if looking into the abyss–I make an outline and try to make it as fulsome and full-bodied as possible, the idea being that when I come to write whatever it is I’m grinding out, I can just follow along through the outline. The connections have been made. The angle of vision’s been supported and sustained. All I have to do is follow the blueprint.

It never works out that way. The process of writing produces surprises. Sudden ideas leap out as if long hidden and festering. Tangents expand. The process itself carries you along, as if the outline’s been a necessary anchor, then a strong wind rises, it’s time to up the anchor and sail with the rush and rhythm of new ideas. It’s as if the back of your mind has been working on things you didn’t know were there. The outline’s laid a path, but walking on that path, beginning to write, takes you where you never expected to go.

I suggest this to students, but everybody’s different. We can talk out a thesis where the conversation carries the thoughts, and the student suddenly realizes her ideas have been there all the while. She just needed to express them, watch them fall into place in dialogue. Same difference with the outline: lay a trail, follow it, and find it lurches and twists, surprising the engaged trailblazer, suddenly excited by what seems to be happening all by itself.

Process is all, as if in the actual process of writing, you discover where you’re going. An article, a book, a book review, a feature story, whatever: it sets its own fires and sends up its own flares.

I don’t know how to explain it since it’s the experience that eludes analytical scrutiny. But the process produces the “product,” not the other way around. You get to ride on and with it. For me it’s not “real” unless it’s written: some compulsion there, no doubt.

If I can reveal that joy and anguish to others, it’s great. I like to think I can–in inspired moments, at times step by step, at others grimly methodical and mechanical. But when you’re hot, you’re hot, and the fire that licks at your fingertips (is that a mixed metaphor?) only goes out when you’ve hit the mark, a kind of orgasmic final burst.

Then it’s time for your reward: a martini, a new outline, a movie. And you get to decide-maybe even more than one!