Throwing Away The Blueprints Saved My Creativity

Like many text-book OCD cases, I’ve been known to put massive effort into planning things before doing them — particularly writing. Somewhere along the way, I got more disorganized and started having more fun.

Mood music:

I think my earlier affinity for over-planning goes back to childhood. I was a prolific drawer, always working massive amounts of detail onto a page. I think I started doing it because in a world full of chaos (vicious childhood illnesses, parents divorcing, etc.) the page was a world I could control. And control it I did.

As a teenager still reeling from his brother’s death, my drawings took a decidedly more violent turn. I started sketching people dead on the ground with knives protruding from various body parts. A teacher at the Paul Revere School caught me one day and said, “If you are ever assaulted, you will never draw stuff like this again.” I think she was worried that I’d be the one to start assaulting people. I did, verbally.

In high school I went to a vocational school and studied drafting and design for three years. I excelled at it, and loved the order and attention to detail the work required. I also loved the drafting tables we used, which were high enough that you could draw while standing. Being the fidgety type, standing helped me focus much better.

Somewhere in my senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to write instead. My architectural skills served me well in this regard, giving me the attention to detail needed for good writing. My writing still sucked, mind you. I was still too young and inexperienced to know what I was doing.

All through college I pursued writing, specifically journalism, and I was in a band where I wrote all the lyrics. I’ve torn my father’s warehouse apart looking for the notebooks I wrote them in, to no avail.

When I started working as a reporter and editor, I treated each story like an architectural design. I would lose myself in the same story for hours and hours, moving words, sentences and paragraphs around like pieces on a chess board.

It served a purpose, but I wasted so much time doing it this way, mainly because I feared imperfection so much that I was terrified to let a story go to the other editors until it was flawless. The stupidity there is that no story is ever flawless. You could rework a story for days whether it needed the work or not.

In more recent years I’ve been known to draw up elaborate blueprints for stories, specifically series work. One former colleague at TechTarget once told me I was the most organized writer he had ever seen. If he could see me now, he’d be either amused or horrified.

Somewhere in the last four years, I stopped making blueprints for story series and I even stopped keeping a daily list of stories in progress. I’ve become more spontaneous in my writing. I pound the keyboard until everything is out of my head. Then, without giving it a second look, I send it straight to the editors.

The program I use for this blog includes a nifty queue where you can store drafts. I only use it to write down headline ideas so I won’t forget them the next day. I rarely review a piece of writing more than twice now.

Amusingly enough, the stuff I write today is about as clean as it was when I would plan and re-plan. It’s not that the material is perfect. It’s far from it. But in hindsight, the material has always been imperfect.

At some point, more secure in my feelings and abilities after years of treatment for OCD, fear and anxiety, I just stopped worrying about the imperfections. As a result, I’m having a lot more fun and getting more of an emotional release from writing than I ever have before.

Now I can’t let a day go by without writing something. Since I plan less, I write more.

I guess you could say I’ve given up on trying to maintain total control. I’ve learned to trust others — my editors, specifically. Erin reviews most of my posts here before I pull the trigger, but that’s more to share what’s in my head with her before the rest of the world sees it than for copy cleaning.

Of course, she is an editor and does point out things I should clean up. I usually heed her suggestions.

Sometimes I laugh at our differences in style. She sometimes rolls her eyes over my recklessness at the keyboard. But it all seems to work out now.

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