Shaking Hands with Change

I keep a small notebook with me at (almost) all times. In it, I jot down ideas for future writings. Posts to this blog, an article I may want to pitch someday. Ideas for fiction. I haven’t tackled most of those ideas yet, but I’m making an effort to get around to all of them in 2013.

By “getting around to them”, I mean exploring them specifically. Beyond just a jotted down concept in that little notebook. In a few cases, exploring what I jotted down has led to a new work. Or at least the first stages of a new work. But exploring those ideas in my notebook sometimes means that the idea I jotted down just won’t work when light is shone upon it. (Or in some cases, it won’t work for me.)

Then sometimes it works, but begins to change in some ways as it goes along. I don’t just mean the inevitable rewriting and editing process, though that does bring about change. But I mean a change in concept, genre, or even a change in medium early in the journey.

One of the ideas from the notebook is a one-man show I ‘m working on for the stage. It started as a concept, and in the last two months I’ve been making it a reality by outlining it, brainstorming, and engaging in all of the things a writer engages in with his ideas. A key element of the structure  of this show had alluded me, until one day, as is so often the case with creative types, I was in the middle of something else when a structure presented itself in my mind. (Good thing I had that notebook nearby at the time.)

The structure, which seemed to reveal itself from behind a lifting cloud, served as the basis of much of the subsequent work I had done on the piece. I had a compass. A direction. A skeletal structure on which to attach the flesh of what I was researching, creating and considering. Things moved in a much more efficient manner during the creative process after this skeleton appeared than they did before.

Last night I was working on that project again. And in the most casual of ways, a consideration about one small aspect of the play brought forth the idea for an alternate structure. And the idea isn’t bad. It may in fact be better than the original that came to me under equally organic circumstances.

Will I switch the entire project into this new structure? It would mean abandoning the type of show I thought I was writing, and going in a different direction with the exact same material. Am I willing to set aside the road map that came to me in such a mystical manner a few months ago?

Maybe, since its alternative came to me in a manner nearly is mystical. Or perhaps I won’t use it, and stick with my original plan. I don’t know yet, and for now I don’t have to. I’m still in the material collecting stage right now, and I may not know which structure to use until much later in the process. But where I had one definite idea as to how to proceed, I now have two.

This is a disadvantage in the sense that I’m not as close to concrete as I had been.  However, I now have two potential structures that I can compare and contrast. That friction may just make the other better. Or give birth to a third structure.

It’s not the only recent example of this experience. As readers of this blog know, I’m in a local writers group. I hadn’t put anything of mine into the mix for several months, so at the last meeting. I offered to write something for the next meeting. I knew right off which idea from my notebook I’d use. The motivation of the deadline would be quite useful in bringing it to fruition.

Guess what? The story, which I initially thought would be rather straight forward began to reveal several layers. More complex characters. A certain theatricality that I knew probably could be portrayed in the ten page length limit, but with a lot more work than I’d thought at first.

To accommodate this, I began outlining the plot on paper to a greater extent than usual for my short fiction. Relationships, plot complications, even speeches and lines of dialogue were appearing at this brainstorming stage.

One day I looked up and realized I had four days to write the story. I hadn’t written a single word of it. And do you know why? In the process of outlining and exploring that short story, it became clear to me I wasn’t building the foundation for a short story at all. I had a stage play on my hands. (In all likelihood a one-act.)

After some gnashing of teeth, I pulled another jotted idea from the notebook and wrote what I think is a solid short story for next week’s writers group.

Life is unpredictable, I realize. Which is why I prefer my writing process to be predictable. In truth, I’m not always happy when a creation departs from my original vision.

But I’m better than I used to be. In years gone by, I’d probably abandon a project that wasn’t quite going the way I wanted it to go. While as I said I do toss some ideas away, more often now I try to make something out of them after that unexpected curve in the road shows up. And I have had to admit to myself that good things sometimes come from this acceptance of deviation from the map.

I still prefer structure and outlines over flying by the seat of my pants when I create something. That will probably never change. But these days, Change and I have, if not a best friendship, at least an amicable working relationship. I can see the potential advantages to a whole new structure presenting itself a mere few weeks after the first structure showed up. I’m willing to consider letting a short story idea become a play instead, if it “feels” like a better “fit”.

Why? Because in the end, I’d rather have more ideas out there which I started, even if the unseen forces alter them, then to leave the majority of ideas I have unrealized when it becomes clear they can’t take on the exact form I’d envisioned from the start.

So, accept unexpected changes in your creations. If you can’t be like some and embrace them, at least give them a firm handshake and invite them out for lunch. Sometimes they can help you after all.

How do you react when projects take a different turn “spontaneously”?

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