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.”

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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!

–Mike

 

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