I wish I were a plotter

In the writing world, there are “plotters” and there are “pantsers.” Plotters meticulously organize their writing with binders and whiteboards and storyboards filled with character charts and sticky notes that detail perfect three-act story arcs. Plotters not only know who their characters are, not only what they’re going to do in chapter five, but what they did before the story even began. Plotters seem to love planning. Pantsers, in contrast, often start with a general concept, set their fingers on their keyboards and start pecking away. They might know the main characters, their names, occupations and life histories (most often retained just in their heads, mind you), but pantsers usually give their characters freedom to develop their own stories along the way. Pantsers seem to get caught up in the story and are sometimes  as surprised by their characters’ actions and choices as their readers.

By nature I’m a pantser. When I write I immerse myself in a scene, and as my imagination takes off, my fingers try to keep pace with the thoughts in my head. By necessity I work with a broad story outline that focuses on the main plot and subplots, and without that outline, I often forget what’s coming next. Yet asking me to formally plot a scene, or write an outline, is akin to telling me I need a cavity filled. It’s not pleasant but I know I have to do it for the good of my story, or ability to chew food. And after it’s done, I can relax and know I don’t have to go through it for a while.

This “pantser” mentality follows me through life. I hate writing down goals, or even thinking about them, even though I know how important that process is. Long-term planning, in my view, is a time suck, and time is my most precious commodity. Actually, the only thing I enjoy planning is a grocery shopping trip, probably because I know I’ll have tangible rewards for my efforts (read: yummy food). Luckily for me, I married a plotter type, a planner by nature who can formulate a big picture way before I even know we should have one. He’s a strategic thinker, where I’m a tactical thinker, or maybe it’s linear (I can never figure out which!).

That difference in our personality types has served us well over our years of marriage, and we work as a team to accomplish our goals. For the most part we’re successful, and I have to admit that those times we’re not come down to a lapse on my end. Too often I allow my pantser self to wander from our goal and take side trips that waste more than time. Sometimes my meandering costs money, or worse.

Such was the case with Hurricane Irene.

Where I live in southeastern Virginia, we’ve just come through several days of nonstop hurricane saturation—first information, then the storm itself. From the first glimpse of the satellite image that showed her heading our way,  the community began preparing, ramping to levels of near frenzy as her arrival on our doorstep seemed imminent.  My planner/plotter husband battened down the hatches around our home, urged the family to pack overnight bags with personal necessities, and dug through our stash of emergency supplies.  It was up to me to find the few provisions we lacked. Except this time I didn’t force myself. This time I allowed myself to veer from goal.

While plotters/planners flooded the stores, from the big-box warehouse buildings to the corner dollar stores, I waited. As plotters snapped up all the D batteries and flashlights east of Richmond, I watched, immersed in the story. When I woke to the reality that yes, a storm truly was coming, it was early Friday morning, less than a day before Irene was to hit, and I raced from shop to shop (before heading into work), searching for a single pack of D batteries, or a flashlight that took C’s. I never found any, and I’m guessing neither did most of my fellow pantsers.

Luckily for me and my family, we kept power through the long hours that Irene battered our house with wind and rain. Luckily for me, those missing batteries never mattered. But they could have.

It’s times like these that make me wish I were a plotter, wish I were the type who, by nature, enjoys planning those measurable steps to happiness, or wellbeing. So I write this message in the hopes that memorializing my thoughts will get me off the couch and head to the store ahead of the curve next time. So maybe next time I’ll be the person with the emergency lighting at hand. Somehow though, I doubt it. Somehow I have a feeling that next time we face a pending disaster, I’ll sit on the sidelines, get caught up in the story, watch with surprise or awe as it develops around me, and forget what’s coming next.


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