They’re More Like Guidelines Anyway

True confessions: I never outlined a single one of my essays in high school or college before I wrote them. Okay, that’s not strictly factual, but when I was required to turn in an outline prior to the completion of the essay, I wrote only the bare bones and didn’t look at it again until the essay was done. Most of the time my original argument stayed consistent throughout the writing process, but I very rarely arrived at my essay’s conclusion the way I thought I would.

I’ve said more than once that I wish there was a rubric for life. Follow these instructions, get a good grade. Straightforward, no surprises. The amount of effort invested is proportional to the reward. I always liked that about school—assignments were generally open-ended enough that I felt that I had creative liberty, but the parameters were clear enough that I knew what was expected of me. Then I graduated college, and it was like suddenly the training wheels fell off while I was riding a bike and I realized at the same time that no one had taught me how to stop.

“You have to go through eighteen levels of tutorial…and it turns out, the first thing that you actually realize once you’re done is that it had nothing to do with the rest of the game.” Accurate.

It’s frustrating, not feeling like I have a set plan of action or a definite direction, but the cool thing about life without rubrics is that I can create my own adventure. I might have a specific degree, but it doesn’t restrict me to a single field or career path. So I’m blazing my own trail, taking opportunities as they present themselves and creating them when I’m met with the potential to do so. It’s messy, and scary, to not have a single stable job with a more-or-less predictable trajectory, but it’s also wildly exciting to have space in my life to just show up and see what happens. A part-time job as a cook might turn into a full-time position as an administrative assistant, and a stint at the front desk of a gym could become social media coordinating and managing a blog. When I choose to be fully present, a process I explored a little in this post, the possibilities start unfolding and without even realizing it, I’m gaining the experience I would need for the kind of full-time writer or editor position I might be drawn to in the future.

But back to that part about outlines. I avoided writing them for as long as I could because as soon as my essay had a definite structure, I felt boxed in. Like the scope was limited to the numbered points on the paper and the vision was confined to what I’d already conceptualized. On the other hand, when it came to creative writing I felt like I couldn’t make any kind of measurable progress unless I understood the entirety of the piece or the plot or the idea I wanted to articulate, and as a result I can’t even begin to count the number of writing pursuits I never embarked on—no matter how captivating the initial inspiration.

That doesn’t really make sense though, does it? If my academic essays and my work endeavors need space to breathe and grow, how much more my creative writing?

I have this back-burner dream of writing a novel someday, but I haven’t had the kind of “grand idea” I somehow convinced myself that all successful writers must have—one that would carry me through the writing process from start to finish. But friends and writers who are wiser than I have helped to dispel that notion, and I think it’s freeing on a profound level to understand that it doesn’t usually work that way—writing is a series of starts and stops, and trading out the idea you thought was so brilliant at the time for a new one that actually furthers the narrative, and fighting through the writer’s block, and making a commitment to put words on paper even when it’s the last thing you want to do and nothing makes sense.

And here, things do start to make sense, because writing for The Scribble sometimes means writing when the words don’t want to form coherent sentences and I don’t feel like I have any thoughts worth sharing. The more I persevere, the more I learn about myself, about my own process, about the magic that happens in the most desolate of landscapes. I recognize the necessity of full-self engagement in every aspect of life and I see the way the concepts I mull over intertwine in intricate ways.

Unsurprisingly, since Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is probably my favorite movie, I notice these shifts in myself and I can’t help but think of Elizabeth and her transition from the law-abiding governor’s daughter (“According to the Code of the Brethren, set down by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew, you have to take me to your captain!”) to a co-conspirator with pirates (“Hang the code, and hang the rules!”). And while I’ve always been, if not an outspoken fan of rules, at least an appreciator of them, I think as far as writing goes there are lots of rules that deserve to be hung. I think there are adventures that need undertaking, and stories that need telling, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we left those roads untraveled just because we couldn’t see the destinations?

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