Outline Outlaws

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The only child of two juris doctors, some will say, I was born to be edited.

And, while my lineage might suggest otherwise — I, certainly, am no juris doctor.

I talk food over politics. In the course of our discourse, I am more likely to contribute a word of the four-letter variety than that of the SAT. I have more use for essential oils than I do for supreme court justices. And, I’ll take a trashy beach novel over legalese any day of the week.

For better or for worse — this is who I am.

But, how this came to be, I’ll never know. I remember spending long nights at my mother’s side, as she relentlessly scoured over my high school papers. Her red pen marked small notes in the margin. Misshapen circles ensconced periods at the ends of my sentences. She never provided answers — the circles were left there for me to ponder. And, it would eventually dawn on me, hours later, that semicolons were her preferred punctuation. I would return my pages to her bedside, having made the necessary changes, and a smile of approval would creep up the sides of her jaw.

My mother touted the merits of a well assembled outline. “If it’s any good, it’s harder to write than the actual paper,” she told me. “You have to decide what you want to say. Tell your reader, point by point, what you are going to do. And, then, you have to go about doing just that — with the proper citation!”

I sat at the dining room table, hovering over my stark canvas — an expository Alcatraz — a blank sheet of loose leaf paper. In those fruitless hours, I hated my mother for every moment that she had committed to my education.

An outline? What a fucking drag.

I was far too distracted for that kind of thing. I was meant to ramble. Free writing journals like W.B. Yeats and Maud Gonne. Run on sentences like Hubert Selby, Jr. Did J.D. Salinger make outlines? Kurt Vonnegut? John Updike? No. No, of course not. Writing was too much an act of the heart for such things.

Back then, I thought that being a good writer meant, without exception, you were an outline outlaw. — But, I wrote them anyway. For my mother. — And, as a result, every paper I turned in was a well comprised, point oriented, thoroughly convincing manifesto. To this day, I have never written for an editor that has surpassed her level of bad-assery.

While I set plans into motion, for whatever-the-hell-it-is I’m doing with my life, I keep returning to my mother’s advice. — Assemble a proper outline. — Even now, it seems a heartless chore. But, something urges me on. I still struggle to find some kind of framework.Β  The thing that tells me, point by point, what I am going to do. Placing me firmly in the reality I so often find myself skirting.

Back here, in this place I thought I’d left, I stand side by side with the thoughtful child I once was — outlaws seeking structure. Back in this writer’s house. My mother’s manila folders stacked on the dining room table, pregnant with white paper. My father’s den, a museum of dusty books stacked from the floor to the ceiling. If ever there were a place to make edits — to begin to write myself again — this is it.

With some effort, pieces slowly come together. Points and arguments. Opinions and footnotes. I learn how to write what’s coming next.

And, when I’m not sure how to punctuate my sentences, I just walk down the hall and run the pages by my live-in editor, clad in her full-length nightgown, red pen at-the-ready.

 

 

 

Drawing: Pete Scully; Materials: “Pens”; http://petescully.com/materials/

 

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