Tag Archives: Anne Lamott

Navigating Outer Limits

2 Jul

Outer LimitsFirst, apologies for the month-long standstill. I have the patience to write only these two words — technical difficulties — and then on to the subject of this glad-to-be-back post: Controlling the horizontal and the vertical.

You’ve seen that old clip, right, from the opening of the 1960s television series The Outer Limits? “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. … We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.” Today I thought of those lines when considering one of the greatest benefits of the Daily Shorty challenge, even if you take the challenge only for a week. Throughout that week you will reap the rewards of both horizontal and vertical writing.

Andre Dubus introduced this horizontal vs. vertical idea in his essay “The Habit of Writing.” He had always been a horizontal writer—one who rushes headlong across the page, sweeping from left to right and back again, recording the thoughts as they fall, go go go. This is the kind of writing Anne Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird when she talks about “shitty first drafts,” and the concept being applied in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones series. Just write. Write it all. Don’t stop until you’re out of words. Then you look at all your lovely words, enjoy the satisfaction of having produced, and tackle revision.

When wrestling with a particularly difficult story, Dubus one day told himself that he was not allowed to move on to the next word until he was certain the one he had recorded was right. Can you hear the screech of brakes? Never run when you can jog. Never jog when you can walk. Why are you walking? Be still already. If you’re writing vertically, you are drilling down into the meaning of the story with each additional word, then doubling back to review phrases and sentences, editing with meticulous care as you proceed. It takes much longer to write a draft but when you do, it will need only a fraction of the revision and polish that your horizontal drafts need.

There is some overlap, of course, but in my experience writers tend to quickly claim to be mostly horizontal or vertical. I am emphatically a vertical writer, myself. Which is why I love the horizontal writing the Daily Shorty approach forced out of me.

If you’re a vertical writer, having to complete a piece in a day forces some horizontal writing, which harvests ideas as they bubble up and allows you to let the energy of those ideas propel you forward. Often vertical writers miss richness and freshness and weirdness that can spice the work because we’re trying so hard to refine, polish, perfect—we are pressing all the time and so we don’t leave any gaps wide enough for the really deep, oddly shaped stuff to bubble up.

Pushing for completion by lights out forces vertical writing, too, though, because we have to be thinking from the start—Does this beginning work, Is it leading naturally to this next bit, How’s the shape coming, Am I heading to an ending that makes sense? Asking those questions as urgently as we must to ensure completing the piece that day, causes us to double-back and strengthen that part of the foundation, then this part here, then over there. We push hard for a big picture that works because we have to finish this thing, which means often we will write more coherently and with a more sound structure than our rough drafts typically have.

You control the horizontal. You control the vertical. Celebrate both as you write yourself to the outer limits of what you can imagine.

Photo of oscilli attribution: Rippey574 at en.wikipedia.