This week’s photo challenge was to put the grid, the rectilinear structure in a photo, front and center. In this photo of a construction site there are two different grids, plus a sign, that resonated with my writing life and with creativity in general, so I decided to use this image for the challenge this week.
The grid inside. The framework for a new building is one grid we can see in the photo, a grid of wood and shadow. Vertical and horizontal studs outline where the walls will be; angled pieces define the roof. It doesn’t look much like the building will look when it’s finished. It won’t protect you from the elements or give you a safe place to store your belongings. But without this stark, utilitarian frame the building won’t stand up. In a similar way, any creative product, whether a novel or a painting or a concerto, has to have a strong structure inside that will hold everything together. Writing, which is the craft I’m working on, works best when people understand the structure behind a good story. Whether we focus on the simplest beginning-middle-end level, examine three-act or four-part structures, or study the hero’s journey or the Beat Sheet, knowing our story’s bones will help make everything hold together.
There’s one important difference, though, that makes this metaphor a little wobbly. With a building, you have to start with the structure. Foundation first, then frame, then you can put on the sheathing and the roof and so on. With a story, though, you can find the structure when you’re most of the way through the process and go back and put it in later, and it can work out just fine. That’s the pantser’s way of working (those writing “by the seat of their pants” and figuring out the story as they go). They may write a whole draft before they identify the structure that will hold the story together, and can restructure what they have to fit. It’s not how I work, though. I’m definitely a plotter, working out the structure of the story ahead of time. But I can still rearrange things, move a wall from here to there, raise the roof a little, as the project unfolds. Ah, the life of a creative person. So much easier in this respect than building an actual building
The grid outside. Between the camera and the frame of the developing building is another grid: the chain link fence keeping people like me out. It’s not permanent. Once the building is finished it will be a business that invites visitors in from the street. For now, though, while it’s under construction, the builders need to keep out everyone who doesn’t belong there. This reminds me of how I take steps to keep others out of my creative process while I’m working on it. I hope that when my story is finished lots of others will read it, finding something worthwhile inside, but for now–no. Although I talk about my writing here in my blog, I don’t post actual excerpts or talk in much detail about the project. I don’t even talk about it much with my husband or anyone else. I need to keep others out while I’m actively building.
There are lots of reasons why writers and other creative people may build fences around their work while they’re working on it. Rachel Toor wrote a blog post about the Twelve Habits of Highly Productive Writers, and one of them was not talking too much about their work while they’re working on it. One reason why sharing too much can be a problem is that you might get bored with the project before you actually write it. It feels like you already did that, so you lose your motivation. Another reason is that ideas and drafts can be fragile things, easily distorted or broken by cross currents. If you’re discussing your story with a friend, even an enthusiastic and supportive friend, you might get suggestions about alternative directions or possible future pathways that wind up taking the story someplace that you weren’t planning on going, and your original vision can get lost. Maybe the new idea is a good one, but since it’s not your idea you may lose connection with it and find it hard to write. Worse, someone might not be so supportive, throwing cold water all over a baby idea that has some problems you would have fixed as you went along and turned into something wonderful, but now it’s all cold and soggy and lost. Sometimes we need that chain link fence while we’re working.
The sign. That’s the most obvious part of the photograph: CAUTION: HARD HATS REQUIRED IN THIS AREA. Anyone working on a construction site had better be wearing a hard hat, and maybe also safety goggles, steel-toed boots, and heavy gloves. No matter how comfortable and protective the building is going to be when it’s done, it’s dangerous in there right now. If we continue our metaphor, this means we have to take care to be safe while we’re working on our creative projects. Writing may look cushy and easy, sitting in a chair moving nothing but our typing fingers and squinting at the screen, but there are dangers there also. Just different dangers.
For one thing, there’s the risk involved in just sitting in a chair for hours on end. Some people try to fix this by using standing desks or even treadmill desks (though not everyone agrees they are a good idea). Everyone agrees, though, that we should all be moving around more, walking, standing, sitting, and generally more active than writers tend to be. For a different set of risks, see the post literary agent Carly Waters wrote about steps writers should take to protect their safety online. The overarching risk, though, is that creativity requires a degree of digging deep, opening up the darkest areas of our psyches, and it can be scary. Sometimes we want to sidestep the evil that might befall our characters, softening the blows because we just don’t want to open up those unpleasant feelings. Janice Hardy in her Fiction University blog talks about avoiding the Nice Writer Syndrome. But we have to be ruthless, giving the story deeply personal and intense stakes, and it can sometimes be scary. Climbing out of your story to reconnect with the people in your life can help you handle the stress of driving the characters you love deeper and deeper into the pit. Friends and family: hard hats for the mind.
So to all the people working in the hard hat areas of creativity: May you build sturdy structures, keep disruptive influences out, and take care of yourself.
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Grid.”