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Plotters, Pantsers, and Underpantsers: Taking Mythic Structures into the prison

I just finished my first day back with my prison students after a three-week break, and, as usual, I'm totally psyched. Never do the hours fly by faster than there, and I always leave jazzed and happy. Today was especially interesting, because I'm trying something new, something which, to my knowledge, has not been done. I'm taking several different theories of dramatic structure, holding them up alongside several theories of story structure, and carrying all of it into the prison. Throughout the nine-week course, I'm hoping that the students will see that there are many different structures available for planning a long work like a screenplay or a novel. For the less linear, pantser types, I'm doing a lot of freewriting and intuitive exercises, too, ultimately trying to tap into both sides of the brain. From what I've learned so far with my own writing, long projects involve both, and both the planning and revision stages are, at best, a dance between the right and left side of the brain.

So today, the first day, I introduced the basic concept of the course, along with the vocabulary of plotter vs. pantser. I told them how I'd always been a pantser, but I'm really trying to become a plotter, or at least something somewhere in between. When I finish the novel I'm working on now, I'm going to use the curriculum that I'm developing for this class myself to write the next one, hoping that I can forestall some of the major structural overhauling I ended up having to do with this one. I realize that having a plan won't mean that my first draft won't have problems, but I do think that many deep structural issues can be identified early on, in the outline or synopsis stages. At any rate, it's something I'd like to try, both for myself and for my students.

Ironically, when I talked about the plotter vs. pantser approaches, the class sharply divided into two camps. In one of those beautiful learning moments that no teacher can predict, there were two guys who argued--respectfully, of course, over the pros and cons of plotting. They asked each other questions, said things like "but I can't imagine letting my characters take over the story that way" and "but I can't imagine reigning in my characters that way." It was fascinating to watch the conversation unfold, until one shy guy in the corner spoke up.

"I'm an underpantser," he said. The whole room went silent, unsure of what they heard. He said it again, and everyone burst out laughing. Then he explained that prior to the class, he'd always only written for school, and that he usually finished writing his first drafts on the way into the classroom to turn in the paper, if not sitting in the desk while the other students came into the room. He said he felt like he wasn't even flying by the seat of his pants, but by the seat of his underpants. Everyone laughed again, and then he told us that he always had ideas, but just never could commit to writing them down. I told him this class might be good for him, because he could use it to test out whether his ideas were viable, whether they were ideas other people were interested in, but most importantly, whether they would continue to interest him. "A novel is a long commitment," I said, "and you want to be sure that the idea itself is worth it." After getting a little more ribbing from his classmates about that comment, he grinned and nodded.

I don't know what he'll go back to his cell thinking, and I have no idea how much he'll plot, pants, or plan. But I hope he does start putting down his ideas on paper, because it seems like he, like all these guys, has an awful lot to say. And so many of them, given the space, time, and structure in which to write, can tell the most harrowing and interesting of stories.

As I drove back through the winding, coastal Texas roads, thunder clouds gathered above the cornfields and lightning spiked the darkening sky. I came to the place where the road widens, where, if you look off to the left, you can see a building that says 1-800-SKYDIVE. The skydivers weren't out in the thunderclouds and the sputtering rain, but I remembered the times I've seen them, lingering in the air, only five miles from the prison. They leap out, arms outstretched, face forward, meeting the air--and then they glide.


Beautiful, Dr. Kat Pat! This is great work you're doing.
Joni Rodgers said…
Great post, Dr KatPat. What an amazing opportunity this is for both teacher and students. They're incredibly lucky to have you.

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