Friday, December 18, 2009

The Organizing Gene

I have a weird, blissful, very vivid memory of myself at, maybe eight years old, “organizing” the Christmas cards that my mom had addressed and put in a shoebox to await mailing. Was I alphabetizing them? I have no idea whether I knew how to do that yet. The memory is all about the niftiness of the shoebox, so like the filing drawers I’d seen in the office of the pawn shop where my dad worked; the feel of my fingers organizing the cards into whatever system I had in mind; and a kind of secretarial sense of purpose.

I had forgotten this memory, which surfaced when I was organizing classes for the Writers’ Center of Indiana’s winter/spring term last week. I was feeling overwhelmed with dates and descriptions, wracking my brain for a place to start. Of course, I needed a calendar, a chart. There would be markers and highlights and post-its involved.

What could be better than that?

I was happy as a clam making the calendar, placing the post-its just so—coded for day, night, single session, multiple sessions. I loved the way that slowly, visually the schedule began to make sense. Eventually, I transferred everything its very own DayMinder Calender—and did a little color-coding there, too. Who-hoo!

I moved from that task to finishing the second (and maybe, maybe close to the last) draft of Looking for Jack Kerouac, a novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years. Then it was time to do my never-fail, anal-retentive novel assessment exercise. This involves going through the draft, chapter-by-chapter, typing the first line, doing “bullet” summaries of what happens in the chapter, typing the last line…from beginning to end.

It takes hours. Actually, days.

I love it!

Concentrating on that utterly left-brain task, my right brain is left to its own devices. I feel the novel’s flow, hold the whole thing in my head—sort of like an ecosystem,. I know where everything is, I see large and small patterns and repetitions—some effective, some just…repetitive. I recognize serendipitous details that an English teacher might later identify as symbols.

Things float up. Questions, observations, issues to consider in setting revision tasks for the next draft—and there are always revision tasks. You could keep revising forever, really. Which, in truth, I would be perfectly happy to do.

Toni Morrison said, “The best part of all, the absolutely delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over again.” Amen to that!

Anyway, the exercise. Next comes my favorite part: highlighting.

I love, love, love highlighters.

I decide what I want to look at. For example, in “Jack” I’m looking at music, ideas, 60’s details, flashbacks, and baseball. Books, generally, and On the Road, particularly. I’m looking at the balance of scene and narrative. I’m tracking characters to make sure they appear and disappear effectively throughout the book; I’ll track the main character’s relationship with them, how it changes, how it resolves. And tension--where it is, where it's not.

I'll go through my “outline” again and again, once for each thing I’m tracking—often noticing things I missed previously, marking them. So I end up with a handful of markers. (And sometimes a rather colorful face.)

In time, it becomes clear what I need to do in the next draft. I make a list, and start to work--knowing the list will change in process. I’ll abandon some things for new, better ideas.

I’d never seen this before—probably because I’ve never gone so directly from one organizing task to another—but, dang, the classes and the novel exercise use the exact same part of my brain.

I first felt the pleasure of that organizing gene, playing with the Christmas cards when I was a little girl.

Playing. Yes. It feels like that.

The creative process is (serious) play, after all.