Know? Or not know?
Writers usually sit solidly on either side of a line demarcating whether you should decide what you’re going to say before you write or wait for your muse to disclose these secrets.
The answer for me is both.
Let me attempt to convince you of the necessity for both logic and illogic.
In order for you, the writer, to construct an elegant narrative arc, you will need to understand a work’s mission. For nonfiction, it means a driving line, something you want or need to say. From the grandness of a book to the brevity of a flash essay, your nonfiction piece needs a driving line. (For fiction, that means a basic plot driven by some sort of emotional reckoning.)
Without a driving line, a writer can become a hoarder. They heap stuff into a safety deposit box even when the material belongs in the trash. Annie Dillard said the hardest decision in writing nonfiction is “what to put in and what to leave out.”
Or a writer can become a rabbit-chaser. They keep going off on tangents, meaning instead of following a trail they set out on, they sidle off on down various side-trails, pursuing bunnies.
Or a writer can end up rendering a “situation” and not a “story.”
Let’s talk a minute about the difference. Vivian Gornick, in her book The Situation and the Story, writes: “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot…The story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” Bruce Ballenger expands on this idea in his piece “A Narrative Logic of the Personal Essay,” which published in The Writer’s Chronicle in 2018. He says, “It’s never enough to simply have events to write about. It is in the examination of the reasons for and the consequences of the things that happen to us that give rise to stories.”
If you don’t plan ahead, you could very easily mistake a situation for a story.
Like it or not, nonfiction has a controlling idea. Everything should bow to the story’s central “so what.” A writer doesn’t take a reader down a path and then say, Oh sorry, there’s nothing here to see after all. Nailing that central point, to yourself, makes the whole journey worthwhile and easier.
Once that driving line—the emotional experience that leads to transformation, the insight, the wisdom, the thing you have come to say—is clear to you, you can then allow the illogical muse, the roving artist, and the word-wise coyote to lead you into myth and mystery.
So ask yourself: Can I name my idea straightforwardly, in two or three sentences?
If so—that, my friends, is your driving line.
Then you can light a candle, excuse the sage and invite the magician, and write the story.