Heresy: Why Outlines are Counter-Productive

Let’s face it: The world is divided into those who write from outlines and those who eschew (eh-shoo!) them. You don’t have to be a neuro-scientist or a rocket scientist to see that outlines are what the word purports: out [side] + line-ear. Hence drawing from the left side of the brain. Don’t get me wrong, you need both hemispheres of your brain to write (unless you are Antonin Artaud born-again). But the juice, the current (electrically speaking), the deep cool stuff that resonates with, shocks, electrocutes readers emanates more from the right side, from the non-linear, illogical, irrational, intuitive, visionary, dark-side-of-the-moon brain. Have I mentioned that I’m a webular thinker?—a word I coined on a grueling backpack trip up to Mt. Whitney, long before we all had access to the World Wide Web.

What you need, want, crave, would give your [fill-in-the-blank] for is an Entry Point to your memoir, story. How do you find that EP? Use your [right] brain. Or consider my Seven-Point Formula, affectionately dubbed a 3-D Ojo de Dios—because when my left brain wants to see it diagrammed that’s what it looks like [photo is only 2-D, let your imagination insert a second cross horizontally through the heart, through the first cross].

EXERCISE: Instead of writing out a chronology or outline, try just writing a few phrases, sentences, fragmented thoughts, free associations for each of the Magnificent Seven Entry Points to any writing: The story, the situation, the archetypal juice (or eternal depth/theme), the memoir’s main characters, POV (point of view) and/or the voice, the narrative arc (or drive, how you drive the story from beginning to middle to end), and the story’s format or structure (which conventions are you using, or eh-shooing). You might say POV & voice are two different things, hence there are 8 entry points. Oh, let’s not bicker over numbers.

News Flash: Only one week until the Memoir Writing Workshop!

Outlines somehow force you to be too democratic and give equal weight to events and situations. They are militaristic, too, luring you into saluting and standing at attention for every story or plot point. They tend to overburden the real pure narrative, to numb out the archetypal juice. Read on.

As I’ve said before many times, the heart and soul (or ojo) of a good read is the archetypal juice (the ungraspable yet palpbale buzz that conducts right through your brain, body, mind). Example of juice in a simple magazine feature: Reading a Commonwealth interview with Colin Powell, whose memoir Lessons from a Life of Leadership is a NYT bestseller, I am drawn in by the pull-quotes–terse Entry Points:

“That’s the story. I was asked to present it. It wasn’t correct, and I regret that very, very much.”

(Does anyone need to know what he’s talking about? Read the news headlines back in 2002, leading up to March, 2003.)

“The one thing Ive been persuaded about is that [nuclear weapons] cannot be used. They should never be used.”

You don’t get to the guts of your story and the reason you think it’s so important to write and share with others by a linear approach to surface events or a timeline. You get to it by (cliche alert:) spilling your guts. You get to your memoir or story through an entry point, by deep resonant honesty that let’s you into your story as a trusted, detached, at times un-sentimental (not disinterested or dis-associated, but detached) observer.

Contradicting myself again, here’s a word for outlines: OK, OK, I’m no fundamentalist beholden and bound to dogma. Outlines can be useful for listing sub plots and categories, events, incidents that you want to work into your Bigger Story. Don’t turn your nose up completely at them, if they work. But if you find yourself feeling more like a secretary taking dictation from Left Brain, try some of the above.