36. Conceptualists and Experimentalists – which are you?


The writer E L Doctorow famously said that writing was “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way”.

This quote featured in two separate presentations this week in a creative writing course I’m doing with the University of Iowa. The presentations talked about “trusting the writing” to reveal the plot to you. One of the presenters, Boris Fishman, acknowledged that there are two types of writers, which he called conceptualists and experimentalists. Conceptualists plan the whole story and then execute it. Experimentalists discover the plot through writing it. But he is an avowed experimentalist and didn’t spend any time exploring the conceptualist approach.

The underlying and unstated assumption was that experimentalists are more artistic, while conceptualists are more mechanical. I’d like to suggest that one is not better than the other, they’re just two different kinds of brains. They’re probably two extremes of a spectrum on which all writers exist. In my local writing group we have members at both extremes. Derek can’t start writing until he’s plotted out the beginning, middle and end. Mary often doesn’t know what her story means even when she’s finished it. My message is that writers should write in the way that makes most sense to them. I want to offer a defence of the conceptualist approach.

Though I have written in both styles, I’m probably more of a “conceptualist”. I usually start with an idea that tickles me. That’s how my brain works. And I usually rough out, at least in broad terms, how the idea will develop before I start to write. For example, my second novel, which was something of “conceptualist”/”experimentalist” hybrid, was triggered by a curiosity about traditional Micronesian sailors, who navigate by means of imaginary islands. By the time I’d finished researching which Micronesian island to set it on, my main character, an eccentric school caretaker, had started whispering his story in my ear. The story was becoming a journey of self-discovery for the caretaker, a confrontation between British and Micronesian cultures. I had more fun writing this book than any other. I trusted the writing and looked forward to my daily journeys to Micronesia to see what my characters would do and discover.

Ultimately though, the book was a failure, and I’ve set it aside to be returned to in some remote future. Can trusting the writing lead to a confused mess? Sure. Does it have to? No. Can having a plan lead to mechanical writing? Sure. Does is have to? No.

A plan isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a template. There’s an old military adage that “no plan survives the first engagement.” Plans aren’t roadmaps of a fixed journey. They’re imaginings of the journey. Things happen, and you meet people on the journey that fundamentally alter what you thought would be your route of travel. A plan doesn’t tell you where you’re going, but it makes you sensitive to when reality starts to diverge from your imagining. Since we can’t adjust reality, we have to adjust our plans. The same, at least for me, is true of writing plans.

My hunch is that “experimentalists” have a plan too, but their conscious brains don’t know what the plan is until they start following it. “Trusting the writing” means letting your subconscious find the path. Being a “conceptualist” means letting your conscious brain find the path.

As an experiment, for this week’s assignment in the course, I’m trying to follow a purely “experimentalist” path. I wrote a sentence “X had run out of time.” Rapidly, X told me his name was Spuggy, an ex-soldier. Pretty soon after that I knew this was about a soldier’s return from war to a world that was no longer the one he had been born into. I still don’t know how it will end, but I can see that my mind is making and following patterns, even when I don’t decide them consciously.

In the end, at revision stages, both approaches merge. The “experimentalist” now knows what the plan is, and the “conceptualist” can work on where the writing has taken them.

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