Let me tell you about a problem I had: I started to write a prescriptive how-to book for serious creatives interested in becoming skilled craftsmen in their art. It was to be titled A Book for Creative Writers and Painters in Training. But wouldn’t you know it, right away I was in a fix. I was writing what should be an easy section on planning what you are about to write or paint. Now planning is something I know a lot about. For years I was a trainer for a consulting company I founded. I trained thousands of people to use the best techniques of planning so they might effectively plan whatever business or career project they had in mind.
But I couldn’t go on when I realized that it would have been hypocritical of me to tell writers or painters how best to plan an artistic work when I had an epiphany, a realization which was that I never–never–plan a written work. I then asked myself a question: “Why don’t you plan texts?” and found myself answering “Because I consider planning unnecessary at least for me and writers and painters like me, of whom I’ll bet there are an astounding number.” It’s not that non-planning is superior to planning or planning superior to non-planning. They just suit people who create differently.
The Habit of Planning
Even as children girls and boys who will become writers and painters when they grow up have been told and taught by teachers to plan the work before they begin to execute it. They are taught that in grade school, and in graduate school professors or experienced visiting artists and writers stipulate that every work should have a plan. Planning becomes a habit that isn’t questioned because “everyone knows you have to have a plan before you begin. How else will you know how to proceed?”
When these now adults feel that urge that stirs a person to create a work they immediately tell their mind to start concocting a plan that will guide them in making the idea for the work or the painting’s main emotion into a tangible reality, as a finished landscape or a finished novel, for example. A novelist submitting a book proposal to a publisher must include a plan that the publisher will scrutinize and refer to to judge the potential of the book.
Having made a plan that the creative has thoroughly thought out, the writer or painter can tell anyone who asks what they are trying to accomplish in the work because the plan’s goals and sub-goals and the book’s or painting’s features are precise. Some writer’s working plans are so detailed that they are hundreds of pages long, and some painters make abundant pre-painting sketches and work-ups.
Some creatives meticulously plan and think the work to be produced through to the last detail. But some non-planner creatives begin to paint or write without a subject in mind, preferring to permit the work to grow organically and emerge. Some writers, like me, begin without any conscious concept of how to proceed other than, at best, a notion not at all well-developed of what the work should probably be about.
For example, it seemed to me that a “How-to-live” book containing the knowledge, spiritual insights, and wisdom of the Japanese samurai I had acquired could be helpful in many practical ways to people now living everyday lives if it were adapted and written properly. I wrote a brief six -page proposal, it was accepted, I wrote the book successfully without a plan, and from its revenues I bought a house.
Like the speaker in the poem “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, non-planners “learn by going where [they] have to go.” They start not knowing yet what they will create, waiting for an inspiration to guide them. Writers will write something and then react to what is written, and then without a plan a work begins to take shape little by little. They write a book this way. Non-planning painters work the same way–each brush stroke an experiment.
Non-planning Virginia Woolf said that her idea for Mrs. Dalloway started without any conscious direction. She thought of making a plan but soon abandoned the idea. She said, “The Book grew day by day, by week, without any plan at all, except that which was dictated each morning in the act of writing.” Had someone asked her what exactly she was trying to accomplish other than to follow a woman throughout a day she would have replied, “I’m not sure.” The planner- writers are sure of where they are going. Their plan tells them.
The research cited in David W. Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creation sheds light on the question this post asks: should a painter or writer plan a work? The answer is that not everyone profits from planning the work because given the methods of creativity of some artists and writers planning a text or a painting is superfluous.
The more spontaneous process which non-planning creatives like greats Woolf and Mark Twain (possibly America’s greatest writer) and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci use to complete a work is contrary to the rational goal-setting, plan-making processes. Following a plan inhibits certain creatives for whom a more spontaneous approach results in better work.
If a writer for whom planning the work is contrary to the way they think and create is forced to develop a plan, doing so will be difficult and stressful because doing so is unnatural to someone for whom planning a painting or a text is unimportant. Such people are dying to omit planning and to get to the keyboard or the easel and create the way they do best, relying on repeated inspirations to guide them to the right words and pigments as they experiment with this sentence or brush stroke, and that until they are satisfied that they have done the best they could, and the work finished. With regard to a plan before starting the execution of the work they think: how can I possibly plan the death scene, for example, when I don’t know at the moment what my mood and state of mind will be when I reach that section a year from now?
Often in the act of executing the work the non-planning writer or painter realizes that the plan that seemed perfect as they imagined the work will simply and emphatically not do the job. I’ve had that experience with every book I’ve written. I ignored the plans and proceeded in what Galenson would call an “Experimentalist’s” manner. A plan sometimes has to be done because that’s what teachers and publishers want and “grade” you on, but no plan will ever satisfy a writer or painter whose methods of creating works make detailed plans unnecessary.
Planners and Non-planners
Galenson describes two significantly different types of artists. The “everything must be planned” artists are called Conceptualizers: they must have a full-blown concept of the work they wish to create in all its detail before they begin writing or painting the work. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Herman Melville, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were Conceptual writers. Pablo Picasso was a Conceptual painter. Conceptualizers state their carefully- wrought goals for a particular work precisely before the work’s production. For their paintings conceptualizers like Georges Seurat (the best example of a painter who planned)–a very cerebral painter) make many detailed preparatory sketches that may be so detailed and finished that they are works of art in themselves. While painting, they closely follow a preconceived image they hold clearly in mind.
The other type of writer or painter Galenson calls” Experimentalists”–each new idea they set about to write is an experiment. Experimentalists such as Charles Dickens, Henry James, Twain, and Woolf, and painter Paul Cezanne have a totally different approach. They allow the work–a novel’s plot, for example–to take shape as if it were growing organically on its own because they believe that creating should be a process of discovery.
The extreme Conceptual painter “is one who makes extensive preparations in order to arrive at a precisely formulated desired image before beginning the execution of the final work.” In contrast extreme Experimentalists “make no decisions for a painting before beginning to create what will become the final work” except to have needed materials and a space to work, etc.
Once Conceptualizers find the crucial problem they advance slowly with a plan, but Experimentalists move fast without a plan. Experimentalist’s goals are imprecise. They have ideas about what the work will be like when it is finished, but are unclear about everything else until the piece is written, the painting mounted on a wall. That imprecision is how Experimentalists like to work, but it creates problems. Not clear as to what they want the final work to look like, they have trouble finishing works.
Because they have trouble finishing a work many Experimentalists often return even after many years to finish works they earlier abandoned. They “hang on” to works rather than being done with them. They have difficulty deciding when the work should be presented to the public in the form of a painting that is for sale, or a book that is ready to be offered to a publisher. It is said that Experimentalists Michelangelo and Da Vinci never really finished a single work. Mark Twain was very slow in producing works and labored over his books’ endings. His endings are never satisfying.
One of Da Vinci’s greatest contributions was his rebellion against the rigid procedures of traditional artists’ training that emphasized the use of careful preparatory studies, advocating in its place methods that allowed artists the freedom to develop their own ideas as they worked.
Which Bloom Early and Which Bloom Late?
Conceptualizers tend to bloom early, often with a striking new style or innovation or great success at the start of their career. They mature quickly, starting very early, not gradually through years of trial and error as Experimentalist painters like Jackson Pollock and Claude Monet did, but rapidly. A young Ernest Hemingway’s innovative writing style quickly revolutionized writing throughout the world. At twenty-six he took over as “the big man” in American literature.
A problem for Conceptualizers is that they may be captive to their early success and develop fixed habits of thought and become too committed to a single way of approaching artistic problems. They become stuck. Experimentalists experiment, writing works that are not all the same. Another problem of Conceptualizers is that like F. Scott Fitzgerald, so mournful in his last auto-biographical short stories, many Conceptualizers spend their last years wondering where their talent has gone.
Experimenters tend to bloom late. As in the case of Impressionist Monet, their skills are not full blown at the beginning of their career as is often the case with Conceptualizers, but develop slowly over the course of a career spanning sometimes decades: they get better and better as time passes.
Is One Method Better than the Other?
It may be thought that non-planners are not as well-organized as planners and may produce disorganized works, but that not true. They organize as they go. Throughout history, both methods have produced superb works.
© 2021 David J. Rogers
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