Blast from the past: Knowledge can’t kill the Muse

I heard it again today: “Outlining is bad. It kills creativity.”

This drives me crazy. The thought that outlining a novel — that planning, thinking ahead, understanding your characters, figuring out the stakes in the story and what’s at risk… that having a working knowledge of dramatic structure — is inherently bad, makes me grind my teeth. What saddens me most is that I generally hear this from aspiring writers. That is, from writers who want to publish but haven’t yet finished a novel, or who abandon their work halfway through because the story is simply wallowing, or who’ve stuck five nascent novels in a drawer because the plot goes nowhere, and they can’t figure out why it isn’t working.

Not every novel must be outlined. But outlining can be a fantastic tool to unlock a work’s creative potential.

Repeat after me. Knowledge won’t kill your story.

Here’s a post from a few years ago. It bears repeating: Knowledge can’t kill the Muse.

The muse – the artist’s mysterious source of creative inspiration – can be killed. Drug abuse, self-indulgent hedonism, or decades spent in a stultifying job can fatally injure a person’s creativity. What cannot kill the muse is knowledge.

This might seem obvious, but I’ve heard writers and musicians say they would never study writing, or music, because discipline ruins creativity. Imagination must run free, they insist. Moreover, talent is innate, and must stay pure and unadulterated. (I once heard a pop star “confess” on a talk show that she had taken singing lessons. The host tried to salve the girl’s embarrassment, saying “That’s okay, even some opera singers have to take lessons.”) Creativity is intuitive, they think – and learning dramatic structure, or music theory, will strip the mystery from the creative process, destroying it. This boils down to fear. They think if you know what you’re doing, you’ll suck.

I disagree. Yes, knowledge can kill a mystery – when you’re talking about the Tooth Fairy. When you’re talking about writing, dancing, singing or painting, then gaining a deeper understanding of craft will enhance both your abilities and your joy – because you’ll create something good.

Okay, done with the ponderous ramblings. Here’s my point. Want to improve your writing? Read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.

7 responses to “Blast from the past: Knowledge can’t kill the Muse

  1. I wish there was a high five button somewhere. I read all your blog posts as email and am constantly looking for the like button (Facebook much?) so I can communicate how much I like what you communicate and agree with your point. You’re not only a great writer but a great teacher as well. I’m not a writer but I love to read, it’s my primary choice for entertainment, and I especially like a finely crafted book. Your books are consistently well crafted and I reread them because they’re ultimately enjoyable.

  2. Thank you so much!

  3. I’m no expert but honestly, how many novelists do anythng the same way?

  4. Great post, Meg. When I began writing, I heard from too many fellow writers that the only way to write a great novel was to begin writing and let creativity write the story. Halfway through my first book, I got tired of throwing away pages that didn’t work. Ever since then, I’ve plotted my books out and prepared detailed outlines. Things change as a write, so my plot outline changes, but my stories are tighter, and I no longer write a hundred pages only to later discover I went off on a tangent that has no ending.
    It’s great hearing from an author whose work I respect that it’s okay to outline.

  5. Brian: I also used to follow tangents down dead end trails, simply because I was trying to think of the next thing that could happen in the story… instead of the right thing.

  6. I used to say I didn’t outline. I’ve come to realize what I call ‘daydreaming’ a story is my version of outlining, along with the visual bubbles of plot threads I draw. It may not be the traditional linear outline some writer friends do, but it accomplishes the same thing. I love this post because it kills the underlying fear that something may not be ‘right’ because it’s not the expected version. Thanks for that.

  7. Daydreaming and drawing are excellent ways of planning, Lisa. What works, works!

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