I heard of this study once where children were led into two different rooms. One room had lots and lots of toys. One room only had a few. The children were told they could play with any of the toys in each room. The researchers found that when the children played in the room with lots of toys, they jumped from toy to toy and didn't seem to have a pleasurable or satisfying experience. The children who only had a few toys to choose from played for much longer and seemed happy and engaged.
I’m not sure about the details of the study, how it was controlled and all that, but it doesn't matter. I think about the message a lot. So how does this relate to writing? Everyday, when the blank screen hums back at me and I fight the urge to check my email, go on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google and FINALLY steer myself back to that blankness, it’s a triumph. I used to have a word processor in college. All I could do was write on it. I love my computer and the web, but honestly, back then it was easier to get to work.
I recently read that the writer Paul Auster doesn't have a computer or a cell phone. I think he might have hit on something, at least for anyone trying to get anything done. After I pull my mind away from all the choices I have, which of course seem so much more exciting than the blank page, the trick is writing. I’m actually a pretty disciplined writer. I get my butt in that chair almost everyday and make myself produce something. If I’m on a deadline, I stick religiously to my daily word count. But even after I've evaded all the choices my little laptop offers me and start writing, then I have a different obstacle. Sometimes the choice of what I can actually write about slows me down or freezes me up. This can happen even when I know what the general story is. The characters could do anything, right?
That’s where outlining comes in, even just a sentence for each chapter or a plot summary consisting of a few pages. It’s my road map. I don’t like to outline too heavily. I like taking some unexpected turns on my journey. I like the characters to surprise me. But if I don’t do any outlining at all, I find myself overwhelmed with the thought of all the roads I could take. I think narrowing down your choices is a good thing. Not every road works for every character. In life, I think it’s a good thing too. Not every toy works for every kid. Not every major works for every college student. Not every career works for every person. We tell our children they can be anything they want to be, that the world is their oyster. But I don’t know if that’s what I’m going to tell my kids. In this world, that list is way too long. Maybe they’ll need me to help them rule stuff out, rather than tell them they can choose from a million different lives. Taking a single road less traveled is great. If you go down one wrong road, you can always turn back, but if you have twenty to choose from, you just might get lost.