Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing By The Seat Of My Pants

Where does that saying come from, "by the seat of my pants"? So silly! Apparently it does have its origin in aviation, and I suppose it's better than saying "I'm navigating this aircraft according to the sensations in my derriere" or similar.


Are you a planner or a pantser? It’s a popular question in any writing class, and has come up a lot in the past few weeks among those preparing for NaNoWriMo.

Planners plan, obviously. They outline, create character sketches, and complete their research prior to penning the first word of the novel. Pantsers leap in and start writing, and see where the story takes them.

The same generalizations apply to life. I’m a planner, have always been a planner, and will probably always be a planner. All my life I’ve made lists, detailed agendas, 1-year, 10-year, and 30-year plans. These natural tendencies served me well in my many careers, which included scientific research, accounting, auditing, and more research. Nothing in science or finance gets done, or even started, without an extensive detailed plan thoroughly illustrated with graphs and backed up with pages of references.

Thinking creatively is not expressly forbidden, it’s just irrelevant. What would be the point? Results of a strictly controlled experiment either prove or disprove a hypothesis. Financial results are either correctly or incorrectly reported. These are worlds of yes and no, right and wrong, and staying inside the lines with your single-color crayon.

Even though my left brain was able to excel at these rigid requirements, my right brain chafed. Why is it this way and only this way? Why can’t I just observe nature instead of subjecting it to a series of tests? Why does every corporate filing have to be done at the last minute? Why can’t I have a plant on my desk?

I always had some creative outlet – collage, cardmaking, sewing. I took classes in everything - languages, mathematics, ethics, sciences, writing - to keep my creativity alive. But these short bursts were the gateway drug to an entire life of thinking and acting outside the corporate box. I eventually left the mind-numbing monotony of corporate finance, and soon after that I left the rigid structure of university research.

It was funny, then, that when I started writing, I applied the same structured, regimented approach. Each novel had a detailed outline, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I charted the high points on wall calendars to track the pacing. Each character had a life history outside of the story, some of them several pages long. It was very effective, and after that much planning, the stories almost wrote themselves.

But, in recent months, I’ve been practicing flexibility and spontaneity. I get up in the morning and do whatever feels right, whether that is cleaning out all the kitchen cabinets, or sewing up another new dress, or sitting on the couch reading all day. Why not try being spontaneous in my writing?

I’m ready to go entirely plan-free, fly by the seat of my pants, and write an entire novel completely without a plan. I’ve stubbornly refused to create an outline, timeline, character sketch, or any other type of plan. I’m trying to become a true pantser, even if it’s only temporary.

I do have the central idea of the story – it’s been nagging at me for years. So it’s not as though I’m starting with a completely blank slate. And admittedly I’ve jotted down a few ideas here and there. With a memory like mine, I have to write reminders to myself or that ingenious idea will disappear in moments. But I don’t think that counts as a plan, so I’m still 100% pantsing it!

Any pantsers out there?


P.s. And is there a smidgen of irony in my planning not to plan?


  1. Hi Katrina!
    I got your posting on my blog but for some reason, I couldn't respond to it directly. I'm not very blog savvy - or, maybe it's just blogger. Such is life...

    I love the look of your blog and I love the background! I would be so happy to get my blog to look better. I have some fantastic fabric that I'd love to use as the background but, I just don't know how to make backgrouds.

    I'm also a writer - been published twice from ASU when I was a student there and I've recently written a children's story that I have a friend working on the artwork for it now. Have you been able to have any of your writing published?

    As for sewing classes, I've looked into Mesa Community College and they have a fashion desgin/merchandising program. Unfortunately, most of the classes are during the week, during the day. I work full time so that doesn't usually work for me. They also offer a few Saturday classes (which I'm strongly tempted to take) and some evening classes (I'm not at all tempted to take, heh). In addition, the classes are all at the Dobson campus - not a very nice campus but a Saturday morning class might not be too bad.

    Great blog!

  2. By the way, I'm a pantser in my writing but a planner everywhere else.

  3. Hi Beverly, so nice to hear from you!

    I *might* be able to give you some suggestions on the comment thing in your blog, I just need to go back and see what the message was, then I'll let you know.

    Fabric is a great idea for a background! I would not have a clue how to do that, myself. I just use somebody else's design and cross my fingers.

    I never thought to look into Mesa CC for the sewing. It's a bit of a drive, but maybe it wouldn't be too bad for a weekend, as you say.

    Thanks so much for catching up with me, I'm so happy to know another seamstress/author/creative person in the area!

  4. Excellent post! This struck several cords with me. I am an Accountant by education, and spent many years working in the field. Accounting is the antithesis of creativity! When I moved to the DC area I worked in Business Development; more creative but just as grueling. It wasn't until I left my job a year ago that I got to reawaken my creative self, and I've never been happier!

    Like most accountants, I am a planner. I organize my home and responsibilities with lists and calenders, and it works. I started journaling my crafting and blogging ideas, but I find that the more involved I get, the less I need it; the ideas and the work come together pretty well. I guess that makes me a pantser creative, which is just fine with me!

    xo, Anita

  5. Anita, thanks for your comments! It's interesting to know how many people have had the same experiences. I wonder if it is a personality formula, like "planner-dominant creative" or something like that. Many people that I used to work with were very good at their structured, scheduled, rules-oriented work, but felt driven to leap into creative chaos in their off hours.
    Or maybe it's just an age thing!:-)