Today is one of those days where I want to write something to share in this space, but the blank page taunts me. Ideas float through my mind, but none strike me as something I want to pursue, at least not today. And so, I’m just going to type. I do this sometimes, when I’m writing a story. I always know how I want the story to end, but unlike a lot of writers, I never seem to have an outline. There’s no ‘in this chapter, this will happen and in this one, this will happen….’ No ‘Act One will be devoted to this while in Act Two…’ I simply start to write and work my way through to the ending.
It’s surprising, what comes up between the first sentence and the last. Sometimes my characters tell me what they should do next and I follow. Sometimes I write paragraphs and paragraphs, realize it’s all wrong, and delete them, start over. I’ve been known to go back in and add whole chunks of story in the middle of a piece after recognizing a scene or two was needed to fill in the full story. It may not be the most conventional way to write. It’s certainly not the way I was taught to write in my many English and journalism classes. But it works for me.
I suppose life is a bit like that, isn’t it? Attempting to work within the outline we created for ourselves, only to have to throw it out, sometimes by choice, usually by life’s plot twists.
How many of us have outlined our lives down to the letter? At this age, we’ll graduate college. And then after this many years of professional experience, we’ll go back to school for our masters. We’ll get married at this age, buy a house at this point on the timeline, have 2.5 kids and get a second dog around this point…
Can I make a bold claim and say I’d guess that your life hasn’t really followed your initial outline?
Maybe it did. I know people who wanted marriage by 25, babies by 27, a bigger home by 30, so on and so forth. They had a nice little checklist and one by one, those boxes have been checked. That’s not to say they haven’t had obstacles or challenges, but largely, their life plan has followed their actual plan.
Then there’s folks like me.
I had a plan at 18. In hindsight, it was a terrible plan, but it was a plan all the same, all outlined from start to finish. I got a new boyfriend when the boyfriend in that plan broke up with me and shifted my timeline by a couple of years, but the outline stayed the same for a time. Another breakup upended it all, and the plot twists took me here and there, back again and away again. Somewhere along the way, I learned to let go of my outline and allow life to unfold however it’s meant to.
Just like the stories I write, I can’t always predict the plot twists.
I didn’t predict my mom dying or having to shutter the barre studio less than a year into business. I certainly didn’t plot out being quarantined for weeks or spending my upcoming birthday indoors all by my lonesome instead of celebrating with drinks and friends (granted, we’ll do that via Zoom).
Living life without an outline has tested my patience a time or twelve. Despite knowing life doesn’t always follow our carefully crafted outlines, I do still like to know the outcome. I like to know the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ and the ‘how.’ That’s not always possible. Patience, as I’ve said many times, isn’t a virtue I was blessed with. I’m always scrambling to know the ending, to find a way to shorten the wait. I like efficiency a bit too much for my own good sometimes. Things I’ve learned in Quarantine 2020.
Still, there’s freedom in throwing out the outline. There’s freedom in trusting that life leads you where you’re meant to be, that following ludicrous pings of intuition will put you squarely in the heart of your own story, the utter and complete star of the epic tale unfolding. Perhaps it makes me a little reckless in the eyes of some, to wake up one morning and decide to try something new, go somewhere new. But I trust there’s a higher power guiding me, bringing me through the peaks and valleys of my own dramedy. Certainly a damedy, because life is too full of drama and comedies, romantic and otherwise, to be anything other than a dramedy.
Unlike the stories I write, I don’t know how mine ends. None of us do. There’s a lot of beauty and freedom in that, too. But I’ve committed to living without the outline and the expectations it brings with it. Plot twists could lead me to a life on the beach, married to an Australian or to old age as the eccentric aunt with a penchant for dry reds and evening coffees. I can make some decisions about where I’m going and what I’m doing, but I know a thing or two about the well-timed plot device, particularly the ones that come out of left field and change the trajectory of my plot line.
And so, that’s what I’m thinking about as I write this outline-less post. I didn’t know where it was going to go as I put the first sentences down, just that I wanted to write something. I’m pretty happy with what became of it – the freedom to live off the plan, even after we’ve returned to whatever “normal” looks like post COVID-19.
No outlines needed.