Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to view my writing technique as “organic.” I think that came out of the numerous (innumerable) discussions I’ve read about the differences between being an outliner and being a pantser. Organic may not be exactly the right word, but since I’m neither an outliner nor a pantser, it’s the best one I’ve come up with so far. My stories do seem to grow, starting out lean and bare, putting on flesh in a way that’s no more predictable than what happens when you plant a garden.
Set Me Free, my book about the death penalty, has been struggling to sprout and grow for far too long now. Right since the beginning, I’ve wrestled with its shape and tone, with the only certainty, developing early on, being that it would not be formal in tone, neutral in its position, and buried in authoritative bibliographic sources. It was a relief to settle the question of what it would not be. The question of what it would be has remained a mystery I’m still trying to solve.
As I sit here, writing this post, I’m still working away at the mystery. An analogy that just came to mind is Greek drama, with myself as an interlocutor to the chorus of voices from death row cells. Another idea that has evolved since the beginning is that there should be less of me in the book, and more of them. In the last two days, that’s firmed up a bit, but the way of working it out has seemed more like trying to bring order out of chaos than growing a garden.
The idea was to pick a provocative quote, let it tell me what to say, and keep adding relevant quotes and my own insights until it formed a cohesive whole, maybe a short chapter or a subsection of a chapter. That’s more a process of accretion than organic growth, but at this point, maybe it doesn’t matter how I label it. It may be less chaotic, but it still seems awfully random, like sticking a pin in the dictionary or phone book. Just pick a quote and see where it takes me, and then pick another and do the same thing again? Is that any way to write a book? Of course, it isn’t. But the Greek chorus feels as if it could be the structuring force I’ve been looking for. In a way, that’s what the classical Greek tragedies did, bring order out of the chaos of life, and give it meaning.
It could work.