Writing into the Dark

By the title of this post, you may have guessed I’m reading Dean Wesley Smith’s “Writing into the Dark”.

Writing into the dark is another way of saying you write intuitively or by discovery or “by the seat of your pants”. I find the term “panser” (likely derived from “by the seat of your pants”) as quite derogatory, maybe because I feel the resentment or distain behind it, like you’re not a real writer if you’re a “panser”.

I call bullshit to anyone who thinks pansers aren’t real writers. We’re just different; we’re not wrong.

If you’re a “panser”, take on a different term for yourself if it helps you feel better. I used to call myself an organic writer before “panser” became a thing. Now I say I’m an intuitive writer because people now have a better sense of what ‘intuitive’ means.

If you write into the dark, you likely write without an outline. The lack of outline seems to be the big defining feature of those who write into the dark. I was one of those kids in school who’d write the requisite outline after I’d written the assignment. I didn’t know what I was going to write until I’d written it, duh! The whole outline business always seemed quite silly to me.

Scenes appear to me. I will see someone doing something. Or, they’ll be somewhere saying something. I often hear dialogue with distinctive voices or dialogue that gives me hints of the characters speaking. These vignettes are like dreams — vivid and clear. As a kid with an active imagination, these vignettes would intrigue me. I’d ask questions of them, play ‘what if’, and follow where they led my mind. Sometimes I’d ask questions of these characters and they’d answer, sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes more scenes, more dialogue would follow this initial scene, sometimes not.

In reading Smith’s book, I am finding ways I have put myself in my own way.

I have always have been an intuitive writer, always will be. It’s just who I am. But somewhere along the way, I got a bit lost and didn’t write anything creative for a LONG time. What I see now is that I got in my own way.

What do I mean by this?

As writers — wannabes, beginners, or established — we can put expectations upon ourselves. You read a book and think, “I can do better than this”, or “I would have ended it another way.” You see another author release two books in a year and think, “I need to do that.” You are writing a scene and you think mid-sentence, “No, I’m going to make the character do something else because it makes sense”, then you delete the last page you wrote. Then we bring these thoughts, these expectations, these plans to the page when we create. We are attempting to create within pre-defined parametres.

In Grey’s Anatomy, Jo Wilson complains non-stop about Meredith Grey. Finally her friend and colleague says pointedly to Wilson, “Stop complaining and do something!” And when Wilson finally does something, she gets results.

As intuitive writers, we do something. We write. We don’t think. We get our brain out of the process. We let our intuition, our creative self, do the writing. We trust our creative self to know what it’s doing and we let it have the wheel. It’s when we let thought into the process that we get into trouble.

When intuitive writers start to plan, write to market, write toward expectations, or — god forbid — outline, that’s when we suddenly find ourselves stumbling. Words no longer flow, characters no longer speak to us, we no longer see scenes. We are in a dull grey room all alone, hearing the echoes of our own voice.

While some people thrive on deadlines, they shut me down.

While some people find writing with others helps them be accountable, they work against me.

When I try to write something to fit a preconceived notion (plan, outline), I stall halfway through.

If intuitive writers write without an outline, without a plan, without expectation and this is their natural state, then we need to let go of any expectation, control, and plan — no matter how flimsy or ephemeral — and just write.

I want to note here that I’m talking about the first draft. The first draft is the creation of the story, the characters, the plot. This is where the true creation begins. This is where you spin something out of nothing. Magic happens here. Let it.

A beautiful writer/editor friend of mine once described that you need to get the editor out of the creative process. I believe this is vital for intuitive writers. And this is the exact opposite of what common and popular wisdom says. Popular wisdom says you should write to market, outline, write with an ending in mind.

The ‘editor’ is the critical voice or anything that says you ‘should’ do something else. It is anything that involves thought. It is anything that keeps you from merely being a channel for those voices, those characters, those scenes. The creation process for intuitive writing should involve nothing but creation. No editing, no thought, no pushing; only feeling, listening, and receiving.

How did I break my decades-long writer’s block?

I started to listen again.

I started to feel again.

I stopped thinking and started playing.

Ray Bradbury used to run to his typewriter everyday, excited to find out what would happen. We should all feel this excited about writing. We should all have this sense of wonder and curiosity.

So stop thinking and go write. Just write. And see what happens next.

Further Reading/Listening

Dean Wesley SmithWriting into the Dark

Becca Syme – Better, Faster Academy, Dear Writer books, and Quitcast. Also on The Creative Penn podcast and The Rebel Author Podcast.

Lauren SapalaThe INFJ Writer

Elizabeth Gilbert – Big Magic


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