When No Structure Is a Good Thing
The unbearable lightness of being a writer with no structure
A person can only tinker with a completed book or story for so long before losing the forest for the trees. Once I reach this point, I edit at the risk of ruining my original vision. It’s alarmingly easy to tip over from “not enough” to “way too much, congratulations, now it’s a hot mess.”
For several years, my one writing focus was The Book, the one I’m now querying agents for: the research, plotting, writing, editing, polishing it was my de facto project. I liked to sit down to write knowing my efforts were channeled to furthering this dream, this book. If I felt like “procrastinating” and researching, the time spent was still supporting The Book. If I sat down and decided to just map out new ideas without writing anything more on the page, it still felt like progress because I was moving the needle on the plot line.
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The biggest complaint from writers is not having enough time, but I do have that time because I’ve successfully created a habit to write in the morning hours…just, now it feels suspiciously aimless. I have the drive and eagerness and discipline to write, but I don’t have the direction. And I don’t like how that feels.
(Show me you’re a Type A without telling me you’re a Type A.)
The unbearable lightness of no structure
The book I wrote was a story I heard as a teenager, a true story with a tragic ending that happened 150 years ago in a place I hiked. How did it happen? Why did they do it? What really transpired? What did the surviving daughter think and feel about it, and how did she go on living? Building the story from these questions was convenient, even comforting, because I had the structure of a true event supporting my book plot and guiding my ideas.
Now I don’t have that. I can write whatever I want! I’ve told that story, and while it’s still got a long road ahead (so it can be told to more than a few people), a part of my writer’s brain has been released.
But that means at the moment I’m rudderless and boatless. I’m floating in a sea of “write anything you want.” It can be overwhelming, like I’ve lost my writer’s mojo, gone wildly off track, or at the very least—horror of horrors—like I’m wasting precious time.
I’m not (I tell myself). Like seasons, all creative tasks have a fallow period which can take many forms. It might look wildly different to many people, or completely different to the same person during separate creative breaks: maybe it’s exploring a new medium, puttering without direction in your regular space, or stepping away from creating completely.
In trying to ride the waves and not drown from the sea of possibilities, here are a few steps that have been helpful to staying on track; rather, to accepting that staying on track isn’t always the number one aim.
Writer’s tools to help weather the ups and downs of writing seasons
Two words: writing prompts. Funny how I never used to like these. They always felt like someone else had the start of a great idea and because they were excited to write about it, they assumed I would be, too. But I didn’t have their build-up of inspiration behind it. I know technically you’re supposed to find the inspiration from the prompt, but they always just felt like annoying non sequiturs. But for whatever reason, now, perhaps because I do have ideas swirling around, writing prompts have become a fun way to give them shape.
For great journaling exercises or simply getting pen to page and being delighted or surprised every time I finish, the Writing Down the Bones prompt card deck by Natalie Goldberg is perfect (as is her book by the same name).
Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner has been an excellent fiction-based prompt book. Still working through it.
The Moon Lists journal has weekly prompts that encourage you to pay more attention to your surroundings and record them.
Accept the mess. Novels infamously have a messy middle, don’t they? It’s that pesky spot where you have to uphold momentum while reaching the finish line without losing plot points or forgetting about characters—I imagine it as the middle of a tent without the center pole, sagging if you don’t pull the sides taut enough or, better, actually find the pole to support it. Anyway, I tell myself that an aimless distracted period never killed anybody. I tell myself to chill out. And then I tell myself to…
Embrace the unstructured writing time and explore! Really: write stuff you never thought you’d dip into before. Poetry. Make up a new language, pepper your prose with portmanteaus. Write a chapter or short story only in dialogue. Choose a new genre, the one you normally never read and then outline a story idea, making it something you’d actually enjoy reading. I came up with these in the time it took to type them, so I imagine there are a million other ways to get out of your comfort writing zone and explore something new. Loosen up and have fun doing it.
Revisit your old bank of ideas and start firing on all cylinders. All writers have a list (or many lists). Maybe one will spark something you’ve been wanting to write forever.
Incorporate other forms of creativity or other mediums into your writing. Collaging the images for my newsletter began with this intention. Illustrate what you write (don’t worry; no one has to see it), curate a Pinterest board for a story or a playlist of atmospheric songs. One of my writing friends is working on an audio compilation of stories.
Or leave writing behind entirely for a time. It’s okay; give yourself permission to do so if you want, and work in another field or medium without thought of the written word. It will always come back.
Stuff I Like
Writing Down the Bones: The book and the deck: there are many prompts in the book itself; every chapter will inspire you to write. But I’ve also had a lot of fun with the deck, its 60 cards each with a prompt on one side and further thoughts on the other. I’m still making my way through it and pull one out anytime I’m in the mood to write but don’t know what. I’m always surprised by what comes out when I do one of these.