Friday, May 12, 2017

Writing: Organic versus Manufactured

I had a discussion with a friend about writing the other day that I thought might make a worthwhile blog topic. It has to do with the differences between a piece of writing that grows organically and one that is constructed instead. Here’s my thoughts.

For me, poetry and flash fiction (750 words or less) usually grow organically. What I mean is that I have a seed of an idea, start writing, and let my unconscious guide me through. I don’t plan it, although oftentimes in revision I’ll make conscious changes to improve the piece. This is not, however,  the way, I write short stories, anything over 1500 words. Short stories are “constructed.” They are manufactured.  Although, if I do my job well the seams and welds in the story are invisible to the reader.

Now, my short stories often start out organically. They begin with a germ of an idea and the first 500 to 1000 words are often written straight out of that germ. But short stories have to have plot, and the unconscious typically only generates simple, straightforward plots. Those stories have already been told too many times. By the time I’m a 1000 words into a story I’m already engaged in the conscious work of building the piece to meet specific goals.

An analogy is this. A poem or flash fiction piece—at least for me—is like a wild fruit tree springing up seemingly out of nowhere. A short story is a carefully pruned and constrained fruit tree that has had many new limbs grafted onto it for specific reasons. Even the first 1000 words get this treatment. And I don’t just go through pruning and grafting once, but many times. The original seed is usually so hidden by the additions that it is scarcely noticeable

“Conscious” writing is immensely harder than just letting it all flow, but it does have its own rewards. One is that you have, in fact, built something with your own two hands.  And the final product is no longer all about  the writer.  It’s at least as much about the reader, if not more.  I believe this is one reason why it’s both difficult and dangerous to draw conclusions about writers themselves from the stories they construct. Just because a writer explores a negative theme does not mean that he or she is drawn to that theme. A writer’s characters and plot twists do not necessarily reflect the writer’s personal feelings and fixations.  Speaking for myself, although some part of me is in every story I write, I am not those stories.


Riot Kitty said...

That last line is an interesting point and a good distinction. So true!

Angie said...

I think this distinction works. [nod] It seems to be a different way of looking at the "pantser" versus "outliner" spectrum, with the advantage that it's clear you don't have to make a written outline to be manufacturing a chunk of fiction.

My goal is to have as much of my writing as possible be organic. The stuff that just grows seems to be the best. I've used the term "organic" myself to describe how that process feels -- it flows, it has momentum of its own, each piece grows from the prior piece in a way that feels natural. My experience as a writer is that my best stories grow organically, as much as possible.

I don't know if it's possible to have a completely organic process for a longer-than-flash piece of fiction. I'll sometimes go back and add a bit I realize I need to support the current working edge of the story, or I'll come up with an idea of something I want to do a scene or three down the line, or for a way to wrap the story, and I'll consciously work toward that from that point on. Although sometimes a completely different ending will grow organically, and if that happens I'll trash my plan and follow the growth.

A little pruning, a little grafting. And I do a lot less of it than I used to. I'm still shooting for as much organic growth as possible. :)


Stephanie Faris said...

I seem to work better when I start my books without a plan in place. But at some point, I definitely have to write out where things are going. My biggest challenge is sticking with that plan when I actually write the book!

G.B. Miller said...

Definitely some valid points there. I was roughly 95% organic when I was going through my flash fiction phase several years ago, in which most of what I was writing was simply built off a single idea with no rhyme or reason attached to it.

Now with my current project, even though the basic plot idea was not quite organic (it had basis in a slushie novel), where the character eventually wound up after a brief interlude was organic, but everything afterwards was 100% manufactured. So far, the manufacture has been constructed well enough for me to write a basic outline for the remaining chapters, if only so that I don't get completely lost while writing it.

sage said...

I like your distinctions. All of my poetry has been organic.

Sarah Hina said...

I like your tree analogy. I think it's apt. And your final insight was most interesting to me. I like the separation you propose there--that idea of craftsmanship, and not confessional.

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot kitty, and even other writers don't always identify that.

Angie, Yes, I always find some manufactured elements in longer pieces. It doesn't seem possible to escape it and have the piece work the way it's supposed to. I do think the "organic" elements have to come first. At least they do for me. And the emotional core of a piece comes from that.

Stephanie, yes. For sure. I do often have ideas that occur to me in the book that I sometimes pursue, but they have to worked to fit the rest of the stuff that's already there.

G. B. yep, longer stuff, professional stuff, is just too complicated to be purely organic.

Sage, for me too. The poetry

Sarah, craftsmanship is a good word for it. I think the failure of readers to separate the confessional from the craft is one reason they often think writing is easy.

Oscar Case said...

Being a pantser avoids all the outlining, cards, and planning, but somewhere along the line you have to manufacture to fill it out, at least I do.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, yep, agreed

Cloudia said...

Quite well said. You stated things I practice and had intuited, but never delineated. Thanks. Another chapter for your Writing about Writing!

Shadow said...

I like how you've laid out your 'garden'. It makes sense and is pretty darn accurate too. And i feel your frustration with 'being what you write' and the assessment people make, presuming your aRe what you write... Yes, it's me, but Yes, it's also my iMaGiNaTioN....