The Golden Mean

In the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams, has one of his students read aloud from the Introduction to their poetry textbook.  The author of the Introduction, a Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, provides, in dry detail, the method by which we should measure and grade poetry.  As the student reads, Keating begins illustrating these concepts on the blackboard, depicting a bar graph.  This Introduction, in other words, is attempting to break poetry down, almost as if it were a mathematical equation.

After the Introduction has been read aloud in its entirety, and after illustrating its principles on the blackboard, Keating turns to his class and says, simply, “Excrement.  That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.”


And then, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he tells his class to rip out the Introduction from their poetry textbooks.  They pause, wondering if he’s serious.  He assures them he is.  Then, one by one, the class rips out the pages, discarding the views of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.

“Words and ideas can change the world!” Keating thunders a moment later.  He is appalled that anyone would try to measure poetry in a methodical, systematic way.  He exclaims such an endeavor rips the life out of the words, turns the beautiful into something mundane, something to be dissected and probed, and poked.

Surely, an intuitive, creative soul like Mitchell Brant would agree with Mr. Keating.  And so would the impulsive Joe Marma, who prefers to act first and think and plan second.  Marc Kuslanski, on the other hand, logic-driven to the core, would probably side with J. Evans Pritchard.

How do we measure great poetry, or great writing, in general?  Furthermore, when we have an idea, a situation, a character we simply must write about–how do we know when we’re ready?  Take a novel, for instance.  When do you begin page 1?  After you’ve come up with a protagonist, and perhaps a villain, and a situation to put said protagonist in?  What if you have a distinct image in mind? Long before I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I had a dream about the “ghost girl” who appears in chapter one, and throughout the novel.  In my dream, I experienced what Mitchell does in that first chapter.  Seeing this wraith-like girl with the blue, blue eyes, calling, beckoning, like an apparition.  That was over twenty years ago.  When I woke from that dream, I wanted desperately to write a story around it.  But I didn’t have one.  I just had that image, that opening scene, if you will.  What to do with it?  Where to go?  It wasn’t until nearly two decades later, when I had the same dream, a second time, and then woke up with a workable idea in place, that I actually began writing The Eye-Dancers.

I wonder what John Keating in Dead Poets Society would say about that.  Perhaps he’d say I am too analytical, need too much to be “in place” before I begin.  I know that’s what Stephen King would probably say.  In his memoir, On Writing, King says, straight out, “Plot is . . . the good writer’s last resort  and the dullard’s first choice.  The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”  King explains that he begins with a situation first, and then the characters, and then he begins to narrate.  While he has an outcome in mind, he’s not locked in to it.  His characters, he says, often do and say things he never expects.

For me, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle–“the golden mean.”  For some writers (and who am I to argue with Stephen King?), just having a situation and some characters in mind is enough.  Without much of a plot yet, they can steam forward and begin.  I need more.  Before I begin a long work, like a novel, I need to have some idea where I want to go, how the book will likely end (at least in a general way), and I often have a broad story line in place.  I don’t do chapter-by-chapter outlines, since I find those too constricting, and, as King points out, characters often do the oddest things.  You may think something will turn out some way, and then it turns out another way.  Some flexibility is necessary, or else you’ll stifle the creative process.  But to begin without a fairly concrete direction already in place?  Without at least some measure of a plot in place?  That is something I can’t seem to do.

Certainly, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer here.  It really is a case of, “Whatever works for you”–as long as, throughout the process, the magic of spontaneous creativity is not stifled or ignored.

So for some, diving right in, without much information to go on, will work great.  Call this the Mitchell Brant or Joe Marma approach.  For others, in-depth planning is essential–the Marc Kuslanski Theory of Storytelling.

For me, it’s a combination of the two.  And if opposites like Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski can learn to tolerate each other (albeit barely!) in The Eye-Dancers, then, hopefully, I’m on the right path.

Thanks so much for reading!



23 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kimberlyharding
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 17:17:13

    Great honest posting about the writing process. You never know how or what is goign to emerge. We all need to feel a sense of space in our creative processes. Every form contains its own potential.


  2. The Other Side of Ugly
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 17:47:49

    Definitely on the right path Michael!


  3. Tarl
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 17:53:10

    I had a mentor (a Technical Writer) tell me the secret, “Clear writing comes from clear thinking.” Let me apply that to your dream. You see it clearly. Tell me. Show me. Tell me what you feel about it. Don’t tell me what it means – that is my job as a reader. You need to create the situation. I’ll find the meaning that I need.
    That is art. That is effective writing. Think it clearly. Write it clearly. Let your audience find the meaning.
    Keep a writing journal – something close by and handy – to write down ideas. These almost always grow into organic, living things. Stories take on a life of their own. Sometimes they need a framework to grow, just like tomato plants. Other times they grow straight and tall on their own, like stalks of corn. And some other times, they creep up on stories that you previously wrote, but they take on a a life of their own and change the pre-existing story into something that looks much different. (Ever seen a house covered with ivy? This is what I’m talking about – it’s still a house, but it looks distinctly different.)
    The goal should always be clear communication in writing. Even if you are clearly communicating confusion, the unknown, or nebulous ideas – be clear. Then you can trust the reader to find their own meaning in your work. And when you do that, you’ve made a connection.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 16, 2013 @ 19:48:43

      Very insightful comments! And your advice on keeping a writing journal is good. I have always jotted down ideas that I might want to write about. With so much always going on in life, if you don’t jot your ideas down, you may find one day that you’ve forgotten them. This is effective when you can’t immediately write a story. Write down a few notes, let the idea take shape, write down a few more notes, and then get to work on it as soon as you can . . .


  4. fortyoneteen
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 23:23:16

    Great post. It is definitely not a science. I too struggle with the “where to begin”. How much backstory do I need? How to introduce the characters? The easy part was the story itself that just found it’s way on it’s own. I had the last chapter done months ago and am still stuffing around with the first! Ha!


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2013 @ 18:43:11

      Another difficult thing for me is titles. Often I write an entire story before I even come up with the title!


    • Tarl
      Jan 25, 2013 @ 04:30:21

      I start my story, then write for a while, leaving placeholders where I know something needs to happen (but i’m not sure what), and then i write the end. Then I go and fill in some more in the middle and write to the end again. Then I print it and scribble notes all over the manuscript in red ink, filling in more of the middle.
      Generally around this time I rewrite the beginning from scratch so it fits. Then i fill in more of the middle and polish the end of the story. I generally write the beginning 5-10 times before I am satisfied that it opens the story the way it needs to be opened.
      Usually, I am surprised at what my story is about. When I started writing it, I thought it was about something else, but I learned along the way with the characters that I was really learning something else.
      Short answer long – the ending is the easy part to write. The beginning takes the most effort. It’s a blind date with the reader and you have to make a stunning first impression.


      • fortyoneteen
        Jan 25, 2013 @ 04:36:44

        Wow, thank you so much for the “short answer long”. It’s so great to hear how other writers get there… and makes me feel less crazy.

  5. eemoxam
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 00:38:06

    I think that you pointed out the most important thing, that there is no right or wrong way. I always begin with one scene, that’s it and I write it out. Sometimes it keeps going, becomes a short story, becomes a novel, sometimes it’s just stays that one scene. Maybe years later, that scene will continue, maybe not. I don’t think there is any right or wrong creative process, though I love hearing about how other writers go about things because some of them might work for me as well. I’m a very visual person and I had a writer friend who told me when he wrote his book he drew maps of the town and layouts of the main buildings. What a great idea, it’s one I’ve borrowed for myself a few times!


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2013 @ 18:45:16

      The creative process is very fluid and different for everyone. It’s easily one of the great mysteries of the universe. Think of “ideas” and how sometimes they “just come.” How to explain it? Thanks for the great comments!


  6. nymuse88
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 06:33:17

    Great post and I love that you used one of my favorite films. I have heard so many great things about King’s book on writing. I’ll have to see if my library has it. I wonder if that’s why I have such a hard time finishing any of my stories, because I try so hard to find the logical/emotional meaning in it. That’s for the reader to find. Everyone will discover a different meaning that connects with them. I never thought about it before.


  7. mcwoman
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 12:52:20

    I’m so glad I decided to follow you! I am in the Stephen King camp on this one. I find it exciting to follow my characters through the story, not knowing from one page to the next exactly what they will do. Sometimes it leaves me stuck, but most of the time, I can keep going. Going on a journey with a “sort of” destination is fun. Gotta keep the fun in writing to endure the pain, right?


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2013 @ 18:50:51

      Great comments, and one of these days, I would like to begin a story like that–without much pre-planning at all. Just have an opening scene in mind, and begin . . . That doesn’t come naturally to me at all. So it’s something I’d like to force myself to do at least once.


  8. cynthiadumarin
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 14:08:03

    Great post. I’d always wanted to write a book but was always stopped by the mere idea of having to plot everything out beforehand. To me it was like strangling the life out of the story before it was even born. Then my daughter told me to read Stephen King’s book. I was delighted to hear him say he started many of his own books with just a person in a situation, not a fully plotted story. Empowered by his obvious success at writing without plotting an idea to death, I had my first rough draft done six weeks later. I’m a pantser at heart. I may or may not have an idea where I’m going at any point in the story and my characters frequently take me on wild rides. But it works for me. I agree that each of us has different ways of working. There is no right way, just for each of us, whatever way works and gets the job done.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2013 @ 18:52:39

      And that’s what makes writing and the creative process so fascinating. So many different approaches, and not one of them is universally “right.” Thanks for the great comments!


  9. kelihasablog
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 18:14:56

    Good post Michael…. 😀


  10. seeker
    Jan 26, 2013 @ 02:10:18

    I just write and have no knowledge of what writing is all about. As for the “golden mean” I would translate that to the way I think “golden thread”.


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