Years ago when I was in college in Rock Hill, South Carolina, I needed a car for my senior year internship. I saved up $1300 cash and bought a 1982 Honda Accord sedan off of a raggedy used car lot. It was the first car I saw that I could afford. I was 19 years old, the car was 16. The previous owner had been a smoker and–I can only guess–had a job transporting apex predators who clawed and chewed the interior.
I treated the car no better. I lost change, french fries, receipts under the seat. I never vacuumed the carpets. Oil changes were performed only at the point that an audible gasp was heard from the motor. I pumped it with cheap gas.
But the worst crime I committed against that car happened midway between Greenville and Charlotte. I was on Interstate 85 when my tire slowly ran out of air and went flat. I kept driving. I rode the rim until the grinding sound grated my nerves to the point that I thought I should stop and call for help. My mother was irate. She sent my uncle to come get me. He just stared at the rim and shook his head. He didn’t say anything.
Recently, I read that there are two types of writers: pantsers and planners. Pantsers, you might surmise, write by the seat of their pants, confronting the fresh, blank page with nothing but courage. And planners, well, they’re self-explanatory, aren’t they?
You might guess that I’m a pantser. Writing by the seat of my pants has gotten me around 38,000 words into my novel, but every page has been under absolute duress. The thing is, not only am I impulsive and reckless, I’m also–you might’ve guessed this as well–incredibly independent and stubborn. I just keep plugging along.
I’m still trying to decide if my novel is novel, as in new, or important enough to bother. Surely, stories about single mothers and lost daughters, and the blinding frustration of a broken social services system has been told before.
When it comes to writing my novel, I’ve eschewed help in the name of originality. If I take advice, if I do what others have done, how can I call that creativity? Isn’t good writing supposed to be fresh, new, surprising?
The other week I finally relented. I read 64 percent of a free e-book titled How to Write an Awesome Novel. That’s where I found out about pantsers and planners. Once I let go of intellectual elitism, I was able to accept some pretty basic advice that led me to consider, for once in my life, slowing down and planning, writing carefully.
I’m painting myself as a female James Dean here. Jane Dean, rebel without a cause. Writer without a plan.
Actually, these days, I’ve slowed down quite a bit. I treat my car a little better. A little. Don’t ask me when I’ve last had the oil changed. I stop and ask for help when I need it. Sometimes. And lately, sometimes, I feel like I’m in a Martin Espada poem:
I may be sixty-two, but I wish I could steal a car for you.
You would spin the wheel and parallel park, graceful
as an ice skater gliding backwards in a figure eight.
I would have a story to tell, not a story where I play
all the parts with all the voices, only to learn that
you’ve heard the story a dozen times before.
I don’t want to write a story that someone’s heard a dozen times before. I want to steal a car, have a story to tell. I want to give that story to someone who can drive it like they stole it. I want to be inspired and to inspire. I want to ride the rim a short distance. I want to pull over and call for help before the smoke billows up around me. I want to be a mix of both pantser and planner. I want to be a writer with both courage and wisdom.