Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Plan ahead -- or not

I’ve just spent some time on a cruise ship with an excellent educational program; on days when we didn’t have shore excursions, there were many lectures and workshops that we could attend. One was a series of classes on how to write.

Considering that I spent a 40-year career writing for a living and teaching other people how to write, you might wonder why I chose to go to these classes.  I suppose it was mainly curiosity: I was interested in how somebody else taught what I taught, how his methods and examples differed from mine, and if he had any insights I might find useful.

And sure enough, he did. He believes that there are two kinds of writers: those who plan and those who plunge. You can fit yourself into the right category by recalling how you approached your seventh-grade English assignment, write three pages about your summer vacation, and turn it in along with your outline.

If you plan, which is clearly what the teacher wanted you to do, you dutifully wrote your outline and then followed it to produce your composition. If you plunge, you wrote your composition, then produced an outline of what you just wrote.

Planners, in short, figure out what they want to say, then write it down, while plungers write in order to figure out what they want to say. I know this, because I plunge; always have, always will. It sometimes takes me a while to write something, because I make false starts, and then have to delete lots of lovely paragraphs that turn out to be tangential to what I eventually realize the composition is about.

The cruise ship writing teacher’s main message was that school was difficult for plungers; in order to get good grades you had to pretend to be a planner. But in real life, it’s OK to plunge. If you know how your own mind operates, then you should adopt working methods that complement that mindset. And he proceeded to suggest a variety of working methods that might work for some people, but certainly not all. The buffet approach to advice -- take what you like.

Of course we could be talking about making art instead of writing.

How many times have you been frustrated if, for instance, a teacher or guru says you have to keep a sketchbook, and you hate to sketch? Or if a teacher says you have to compose your entire quilt on the design wall before you sew it together, and you get so antsy you can’t stand it, needing to start sewing?

You might infer from the previous paragraph that I’m the person in the second clause of the sentence, the one who can’t stand to plan ahead. In art as in writing, I’m a plunger. I usually don’t know what I’m going to say or make until I make it. My thoughts tend to coalesce only when I’m sitting at the sewing machine or at the keyboard.

Sometimes teachers will tell me “you say you hate sketchbooks, but it would really be much better if you would use one; why don’t you just try it?” or whatever pet working method they espouse. Just like those teachers who wanted me to hand in the outline three weeks before the term paper was due. (I really had to work hard to get those term papers done three weeks early so I could do the outlines.)

I like to think I’m open to new techniques and new approaches, so occasionally, in the presence of a teacher I like and respect, I give it my best shot. I‘ll carry that sketchbook around, even make some sketches. I’ll try to arrange a lot of fabric on the design wall before I start to sew. But those approaches never take for more than a couple of days.

I know myself. I’m willing to risk sewing a wrong seam, and maybe have to rip it out later on, because it’s the stitching that gets my head in gear. Your mileage may (will) vary. Know yourself, and act accordingly.


  1. Okay, what's the difference between carrying a sketchbook around and carrying a camera around? Just because you're not putting pencil to paper doesn't mean you're not looking, seeing, thinking about art, which I presume is the point of using a sketchbook.


  2. This is one of the most reassuring and affirming things I have ever read! THANK YOU!

  3. After spending the last 2 days with an excellent quilt teacher, who is a planner, your post helps me with the sense of failure I came away with. I learned a lot, but left very disheartened because I am a plunger. Your post was just what I needed to hear to take the weight off my brain for my lack of success with this class.

  4. So ... I'm not a failure, I'm "just" a plunger??? Thanks for this post !! I love to "just sew" ... and I try and try and try, but my sketchbook is not opened and used very much. But in the end, I like the results of me plungering - and now I can even stop trying to come up with a plan for the quilt after it is finished. Should give me more time for sewing ;-))

  5. Am I a plunger? May be or may be I'm the world fastest planner :p
    I remember when I was a student. When I had to write essays I wrote directly the "good copy". But the teacher wanted the draft. So after the essay was finished I used to copy it in a fake draft. I had all the essay in my mind why lose time in a draft?

    Now I can see that I approach quilting in the same way.
    I'm not able to do sketches, preparatory designs and so on. For example when I read the theme of a quilt contest in 5 seconds I know what I'm going to say with my quilt and the image of the finished quilt jump in my mind.
    To me sketch is a waste of time, unuseful as long as I can't plan modifies on paper, I eventually modify my quilt idea while sewing.

    I don't know if I'm a plunger or a fast planner... but I don't think the tag is as important as keep following my own way to be :)

    thanks for this post

  6. Good post.

    I'd like to know what some of his tips were for working better as a 'plunger'. I write a column for our newsletter, and for several days I tell myself that I need to get on that and write some drafts. Mostly though, I think of what to say and how to say it. Then on the night before it is due, I write it out. Usually all in one go. BLORP!!! The next day I edit. And then I turn it in 1 day late after I read it one more itme. I sometimes think that it might be better if I spent more time on it, but I seldom go back and read it and want to change anything. It's nice to know that I can accept that and simply appreciate the plunge. So did he have any suggestions for plunging writers?

  7. First, thanks to everybody who enjoyed this post! There are obviously a lot of us out there in the realms of both writing and stitching.

    Leigh -- his major tip for plungers is to waste no time in revision -- just get your thoughts down as quickly as possible. (Don't waste time editing and polishing stuff that may not make it into the final draft. He doesn't even stop to fix spelling errors, although he acknowledges that many writers can't stand that.)

    Only after you have gotten it all out and decided what's going to make it to the final version should you worry about getting it perfect.

    Sounds to me as though your method is working just fine, except maybe you should start 24 hours earlier? Don't worry.

  8. This made me smile!! I've always produced the outline last. Perhaps that's why I feel most comfortable in the science world where you usually write the abstract of scientific papers after you've written the text,to sum up consisely what you've said.
    I get enough of planning in the day job so in art I try to trust and enjoy the process and see where it takes me.

  9. ha - yes I am guilty of the plunge - more daring, more fun. Sometimes not the most accurate end result - but it often has more energy.

  10. Great post, Kathy. I've often wished that computers had been available in my earlier writing days. I appreciate being able to just start writing somewhere in the middle and add pieces here and there instead of going about it in an outline fashion.

  11. Aha ! Finally a diagnosis for my affliction, LOL. And to learn I'm not the only "sufferer" is truly wonderful. Thanks so much for your post from a fellow Plunger.
    Christine in wintery Sydney Australia

  12. Thanks so much for this post. I have always been a "plunger". In recent years I have felt so guilty that I don't keep a sketchbook and cannot plan out my quilts ahead of time. I do think about things for ages before committing myself, but sketching things has never helped me with the planning. I do keep a notebook, however, a treasure trove of ideas, impressions, and drawings of things I've seen that I would like to make. However, the notes are not always made into things, they just help me at those times when I am away from my sewing machine or too busy involved in making a big project.
    Thanks for helping me to get my thoughts in order and to stop feeling guilty.

  13. Mandy and Christine -- I also used to feel mildly guilty about not being able to use a sketchbook, but realized some time ago that my head worked differently and guilt wasn't accomplishing anything. Maybe what we need is to exert more peer pressure to NOT use sketchbooks!

  14. Enjoyed this - I don't actually plan but there's a long gestation period where I think around what I want to do (and yes as a divergent thinker it can sometimes take a long tim) Sometimes I even use sketchbooks. But if I do the "supposed-to" type planning everything dies on me, so I explore the possibilities then improvise like mad! Not sure whether that makes me a planner or a plunger or a bit of both!

  15. I had no idea I was a plunger but you have described me to a "T"! I'm a plunger in my writing process and in quilt making. Up until now I have also felt as if I was doing something wrong by not having a sketchbook (well I have one, I just never use it or refer to it!) When I talk to people who use a sketchbook, it sounds so sensible and right. But when I want to start quilting, I just have to grab a pile of fabrics and start cutting and stitching. That's where I get the most enjoyment. Quilts in the planning stage just stay there. And as far as writing, all I need is the idea and I just plunge in. Thanks for allowing me to see this about myself.

  16. I am a plunger....and love every minute of it! I'm a primary school teacher and need to be VERY structured during my work life. Crafting is completely different....I plunge in and do whatever I feel like however I like. A prime example is this morning before work I was tracing an applique pattern pieces before work. As I was tracing the pattern I was planning how I would change how I would put the quilt together. It had gone from one wall hanging to a few!

  17. Sue -- by contrast, I always have been a plunger, in my day job as well as my avocations. everybody's brain is wired differently, I guess.