Creating a Mess

We’re in the process of building a house–it’s passive solar, adobe/straw bale and very cool, and a whole lot of work. And it’s reminded me just what a mess the whole creative process is–seems like you can’t make anything without a lot of clutter and tearing things up. But, somehow, each time I start any new project, I keep thinking it will be different. I think it’ll be smooth and go as planned. It’s the same when I cook–the kitchen ends up looking like something exploded. Right now the house looks about the same–a skeleton and a whole lot of stuff gathered near, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. It’s the same when I write. It all seems a smooth process to start, and then I’m deep in the weeds.

But messy doesn’t have to be bad. It’s the amount of mess–and sticking to the vision–that matters.

Too much mess and you lose control of everything–details get lost (as in you forget to put in the vanilla, or the kitchen sink, or that scene that you really needed in act two). But I’ve come to believe that too little mess and you’re also in trouble–for me, it means I’m not really getting much done. Because the planning part of things is pretty tidy. Looking up a new recipe–easy stuff. Laying out floor plans, it’s work, but it’s all ideal scenarios. Thinking about a book is fun stuff. It’s when you get down in the dirt that you start realizing that plans have to shift, things have to change, and those materials you needed to order are not going to get here on time. Same with a book. The work starts when the mess begins.

The story stalls at page 50, or 100, or takes a left turn you weren’t counting on and now you have to decide to run with it or try to wrangle things back into the plot you thought you were using. You get pages done, realize you need to throw out that scene you really like, and then the antagonist’s motivations show up as paper thin and you start thinking maybe the whole thing needs to be redone. The muse decides to take a vacation right in the middle of act three, and there’s those dang subplots to wrap up, and you get to the end and realize you need to introduce the character who shows up there sometime in the first part of the book. It’s all a mess–and at some point, the only thing for it is to let go of the results and keep hacking at it with the idea that once it’s done, you can fix what needs to be fixed. Meaning you can clean up the mess once you’ve got the structure in place, a floor, walls and ceiling up, and the plumbing in, and electric wired.

I’m looking forward now to the more fun parts of the house–things like picking out wall plates for light switches. Or deciding where a painting goes. Easy stuff. That’s the same with a book. Once the structure is there–once there are pages–then you can edit and fuss and make it all pretty. Meantime, for me it’s back to the mess–the middle of everything.

Shannon Donnelly

Now at Book View Cafe:

A Dangerous Compromise

A Compromising Situation

Under the Kissing Bough

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Creating a Mess — 3 Comments

  1. This may come under the heading of the nine-and-ninety ways to construct tribal lays, but there are those people who lay the whole thing out in their minds, in beautiful and organized perfection, and then just write it down. These are not people that are me!

    I hope you’re going to tell us more (if not here, then elsewhere) about the house! Is it earth-sheltered?

    • House is going to be earth plastered — straw bales on the north, east and west for insulation. Adobe on the south for passive solar (provides mass and windows also help heat). More is posted on our other blog – cielitolindoranch.org. It’s been quite the undertaking.

  2. I do not believe in 1 draft writers. They say they never revise, but they do. They do it all in their head while playing golf before hitting the keyboard. But the friend who does that is writing work for hire media tie ins. When he has to actually plot something with original characters his office explodes just like the rest of us and he discovers that writing is WORK.