Two years ago, I spent a year studying origami, off and on — more on than off, which I’m proud of, but not in any kind of professional sense.
I got pretty good, though it was mainly “good for an amateur”. There is a certain jump that origami enthusiasts are eventually faced with, moving from “need instructions” to “just show me the creases”. Some people make the jump; I didn’t. What MIT can do with origami is frankly amazing. Don’t talk to me about the cheaters who use fan folds, though.
Anyway, I came to the conclusion that writing was actually really good practice for origami, and vice versa. They’re very different disciplines; origami is mathematical, geometric, and spatial, while writing fiction is…generally not. And while I am pretty good at writing fiction, I am inherently awful at anything to do with mathematics.
But the discipline itself, the way one thinks about the art — for me, those are very similar.
When I started writing, I had no formal training; I still have very little. So I didn’t know about arc and development and building the narrative, I didn’t know about the structures of stories or how to plot one out. I didn’t know where a story was going until it got there. Likewise, I am very bad at pre-reading visual instructions for the creation or construction of a physical thing. I’m better than my mother and her mother, who wouldn’t read the instructions at all; I follow the steps and usually come up with, say, a bed frame that looks like its Ikea picture, or an origami duck. But I won’t bother to read all the instructions before I begin because, frankly, I won’t understand them anyway.
I mean, do you read every step in the process of folding a paper crane before folding one? I could, but it wouldn’t help.
Origami was a lot like my early writing. At first I didn’t bother looking ahead because it wouldn’t change anything, and I wouldn’t understand. I just did the step the instructions told me to do, or I wrote a scene I wanted to write. But once you get to be pretty decent at origami, which requires a lot of yelling and frustration first, you realize that sometimes, if you don’t understand the step you’re on (and some of those folds get pretty tricky), you can look ahead a few steps and you actually will understand what you’re doing better. Mainly because you’ll see the fold you’re working on from other angles, but sometimes because you’ll see the reasoning behind folding that corner this way instead of that way. I am convinced there is a step in every single origami pattern that may as well be called “Do some magic here”, but at least now I can often reverse-engineer which magic I’m supposed to be doing.
I still, often, start a story with either no inkling of how it will end or only a vague idea of how to get from where I am to the ending. I’m okay with that; it works for me, and I fix the middle-part goof ups in rewrites. But I have learned that looking ahead just a little can be a big benefit — just to see where the step you’re on now is about to take you.
Mind you, much as with origami, there’s still a lot of yelling sometimes involved.