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Put Aside the Planning and Pantsing, and Consider A Land of Your Own Invention


In 1987, Michael Graziano was a young neuroscientist. He and his team would study macaque monkeys to explore certain areas of the brain. The macaques were anesthetized, but the anesthesia leaked so, in their dark laboratory amid the chatter of firing neurons, he sometimes found himself hallucinating – the macaque getting up and moving but then after a double take, he realized the monkey hadn’t moved at all. He became a leader in the field of peripersonal neurons as it relates to the concept of personal space.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing yet. So let me get to it. In a time when every experiment was laid out in advance – analyzed and mapped with clear succinct goals and contingencies, Graziano “…followed an extravagantly different playbook, an older style,” as he puts it in his book The Spaces Between Us. “I followed a two-stage cycle. First, go fishing. Second, take out the calipers and measure the fish.” He extends the metaphor. “In the first stage, we’d spend months exploring… Nothing was publishable… we’d keep our eyes open… filling notebooks… We’d pull out amazing fishes of bizarre shapes and colors that nobody had ever imagined before… When we stopped surprising ourselves every day, when we thought we knew what was going on, we’d shift to the second stage: measuring the fish in a formal, controlled manner.”

This resonated with my own process. I’ve taught workshops for a very long time, and, most recently, I’ve taught a lot of screenwriting. In screenwriting, it’s especially typical to write treatments, beat sheets, to work out the structure of the architecture, on a grand scale. A grand hypothetical scale or so it seems to me. What I’ve found is that sometimes the best work – that with the most grittiness and disorienting truth – often comes by accident, not planning.

In fact, early on in my workshops, my goal is often to have the students write well by accident – creating low-stakes, ambitiously risky opportunities for them to do just that. Once they write some scenes that have that charge to them, then I like to see their minds play out a larger structure for that scene to dwell inside of. Or as they come in with ideas to pitch to the group, I like to have them dig into a scene pretty early on – any scene – just to see how the characters mess with each other in a confined space. Often they can have a great idea, but can they write it, at this moment in their lives? Are these characters creating themselves or is the writer a puppeteer, telling them what to do?

As Graziano puts it, “If it hadn’t been for that two-stage approach… I would have elaborate theories, impressively complex experimental designs, well-trained monkeys pressing buttons and pulling levers, probably a whole stack of papers with enough technical showmanship to get into the most respected journals. But insight? Probably not so much.”

Yes, exactly.

So when it comes to the two camps of novelists – those who plan everything and those who write by the seat of their pants – I’d like to offer this other model.

The Graziano Model, in which you explore, maybe write some short stories or poems or essays, maybe sketch and jot one-liners, filling notebooks, or, as Graziano puts it so simply: we’d keep our eyes open. Once some characters, some scenarios, some ideas arrive, can you allow for this mucking around time, this “bushwhacking,” as Graziano puts it? “To a neuroscientist, a brain area is like a country. It’s vast,” Graziano says.

Yes, understood. The terrain of a novel is a country, too, vast and lush, a land of our own invention.

About Julianna Baggott [2]

Julianna Baggott [3] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [4] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [5] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [3].