Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Clustering (also called bubbling, mapping, and webbing) is a non-linear method of finding writing ideas. It’s a form of free association, where one word, idea, or image leads to another. Clustering works with the same basic principles as freewriting. There is no stopping to edit spelling or grammar. At first the process might seem random, but as your associations deepen, so does the writing. Gabriele Rico (Writing the Natural Way) wrote that many natural forms such as grapes, lilacs, spider eggs, and cherries come in clusters. When we give our thoughts and images “free rein” they “seem to come in clusters of associations.”

Begin with a blank page. In the center of the page write a word, image, or phrase and circle it. This is the seed or nucleus from which you will start. Write whatever word or phrase that pops into your head. Put each new connection in its own circle. Connect each circle with a line to the circle preceding it. Move outward as one connection leads to another. If your train of thought shifts to something else, return to your nucleus and move outward again. Do this until you’ve exhausted all ideas. Or if you prefer, set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes. As in freewriting, do not stop before the time is up. Push through your resistance. Your cluster may not expand evenly. More likely, it will look lop-sided, with one area more clustered.

You may meet resistance when you begin clustering. We normally think linearly. We make to-do lists and grocery lists. Our day planners have sections for task lists. Clustering is a writing method to force us to break out of that linear thinking that tends to make us view things in an organized, prioritized way. Clustering is more random, less restricting. However, you may be surprised to learn that this random method actually invites more organized meanings and images. You’ve probably heard about having a right and left brain. Gabriele Rico coined the terms “sign” and “design” minds to explain the right and left brain concepts. The left hemisphere or the “sign” mind is the side concerned with rational, logical, and critical thinking. This is the side where our internal censor exists. The right hemisphere is the “design” mind. It’s the area primarily concerned with abstract, creative, and nonlinear thinking. When we write, sometimes our internal censor takes over, and before we even put words on the page, we’re already editing. When we cluster (as in freewriting) we tell our censor to shut up. Only after we’ve allowed ourselves to be playful, and we’ve captured the energy of what we want to say, should we summon our internal editor. Only then should we allow the critical part of our brain concentrate on the mechanics of what we’ve written.

Dorothea Brande (Becoming a Writer) sums up this process much more eloquently than I can. She wrote: “Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer—the craftsman and the critic in him—are actually hostile to the good of the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.” So instead of waiting for inspiration, use the clustering exercise to harness your creative energy.

Try this clustering exercise:

First, ask yourself what things evoke a strong emotional reaction for you? Reactions may be either positive or negative. For instance, start with “people” in your nucleus. Begin clustering. Cluster until you’ve exhausted every association, or set your timer for a prescribed limit. When you finish your cluster, note the sections that gathered more associations. Where did the energy seem concentrated? Freewrite for five, ten, or fifteen minutes. Remember the rules for freewriting: No stopping. No editing. Repeat the freewriting process for any other cluster. Here are more prompts to try:
· reasons to avoid writing
· time
· work
· what I’m afraid of
· quiet
· letting go
· surprises

As in freewriting, you can use random prompts. Use the clustering exercise in conjunction with freewriting. Or do it alone. Use whichever method works for you.

“Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.”
~William Zinsser

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Freewriting and Writing Prompts

When I was asked to help teach my son’s fifth grade creative writing class, I was surprised the teacher had not heard of freewriting. As I explained the concept, she gave me a quizzical look. I can understand her skepticism, because as a teacher, she has to teach her students the rules of grammar and spelling, and freewriting throws those concepts out the window. Though resistant, she agreed to try it.

I remember reading of Natalie Goldberg’s (Writing Down the Bones) experience when she told her students to describe their favorite meal. She told her students not to write, “It’s good” or “tastes yummy.” She urged them to use concrete words and specific sensory details. Goldberg said the writing was energetic. I borrowed her idea, and my experience was the same. Many students grinned as they wrote as fast as they could. Some tilted their heads back as if smelling their favorite meal. The experience was as inspiring to me as it was to them. Many clamored to read their pieces aloud.

There were a few students resistant to the process. Some stared into space, afraid to make any marks on their papers. With a little prodding, they began to write. “You mean I can write anything?” they asked me.

“It’s your writing. It can say whatever you want it to say.”

Sometimes I had to stop some students as they erased or crossed out sections they didn’t think were perfect or sentences they didn’t like. “No erasing, no crossing out,” I told them. “Just keep writing.”

“I don’t know how to spell this word,” one told me.

“It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about spelling. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect.”

I saw one boy staring into space after he had written only one sentence. “I don’t know what else to write.”

“Then write ‘I don’t know what else to write’ or keep writing the last line you wrote until something else pops into your head.”

“What if it doesn’t make sense?”

“It doesn’t have to make sense. Just write.”

Eventually he let go of resistance, of trying to follow “the rules” or trying to write what he thought his teacher or I might want. That class period we did several freewrites. The teacher whispered, “Wow. They’re excited about writing. I’ve never seen them this way.” Afterward each class period began with a fifteen minute freewrite. Rarely did I hear groans when I told them to open their notebooks. They anticipated each new writing prompt as if it were a present to be unwrapped.

What is freewriting? Freewriting is just what the word suggests. You may use a predetermined topic, such as a prompt or idea, or you may begin with no plan. Start with the first thing that pops into your mind and write for ten or fifteen minutes, without stopping, without editing spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Do not worry about “rules.” Forget about what your English drummed into your head. Think of this as play time. Allow yourself to write junk. Be silly. Have fun. Dig deep. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Tell your internal censor to shut up. If you get stuck, rewrite the last line until something else comes to mind. Do not stop writing no matter how difficult it is. Write through it. If you gather momentum and the words start pouring out, even after the fifteen minutes is up, keep writing until you come to a natural stopping point. Forget about the time. Receive it as a gift.

Some days will be energetic, and on other days, it’ll feel like wading through molasses. You may not always have good writing sessions, but it’s important to practice daily. I remember when I writing friend was ill, she made herself write, anyway. She wrote for three minutes. Only three minutes? It was some of her best writing. Write for three minutes or for thirty minutes. It doesn’t matter. Just write. Maybe some days you may not feel like writing. Make yourself do it. Set your timer for three minutes. It might be good. It might not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do write.

I’ll bet you’re wondering why deliberately ignoring “the rules” of writing as in freewriting can be so helpful in developing the writing craft. Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff address this issue in their book, Nothing Begins with an ‘N’: New Investigations of Freewriting.
They also address why freewriting invites “some of our best writing and thinking.” Some of the reasons they list are:
· Writing is usually judged or graded, but freewriting is not.
· Writing is usually for an audience, but freewriting is private, thus safer.
· Writing is supposed to be more “important and dignified” than speech, whereas freewriting allows you to let the words be less important and careful.

Elbow and Belanoff also say while freewriting “removes the difficulties of regular writing,” freewriting is not easy. Probably the hardest part of freewriting is to keep writing, to not stop until the prescribed time is up. Did you know that when you take away the distraction of trying to construct perfect sentences, to make your writing totally coherent, you can focus your energies on what you really want to say? Freewriting works because you’re not allowed to stop. Therefore, you can allow yourself to get caught up in the momentum, the stream of consciousness flow. How many times have you been in the midst of an animated conversation, and for one reason or another, you’re interrupted? It’s hard to get back to the conversation. Sometimes you lost your train of thought, or the energy has died. Not so with freewriting. No stopping allowed.

So what do you freewrite about? If you’re stuck in the middle of a story or novel, you can pull yourself out of the “good” writing, the carefully constructed sentences, paragraphs, and dialogues and freewrite about a character, situation, or the problem you’re having with the story. Use the freewrite to play out the different options, and if they don’t work…so what? You don’t have to put it in your story. Or maybe you just want to get to know a character better. Write your character’s stream of consciousness thoughts, dreams, motives, wants. Ideas will come to you. Then you can get back to your story or novel.

You may also use the freewriting for writing articles, essays, and memos. Maybe you have a topic for an article, but you don’t know how to narrow it down. Freewrite all the possibilities—even the seemingly ridiculous ones. And what about the memo? Begin by freewriting, “What I really want to say…” and go from there. Not too long ago, I had to write a letter of resignation. It was a task I dreaded. I couldn’t figure out what to say or how to start. Before I wrote my formal letter, I wrote everything I really wanted to say to this horrible boss. The things were too crude and unprofessional to include in my formal letter. But getting those feelings out on paper first helped me write a gracious, professional letter—all the while I was giggling in my mind.

You can use freewriting as a warm-up before doing your “serious” writing. Or freewrite just to keep writing daily. Create a random prompt generator. Write a list of writing prompts ahead of time and choose one randomly each session. Use index cards, colored paper, or whatever else. Write one prompt on each. Put them in a bowl, basket, hat, or whatever else suits you. Other suggestions for prompts:
· Make a list of song titles or book titles.
· Make a list of first lines of books, poems, or songs.
· Write each letter of the alphabet on a card or along one side of the paper. Beside each letter, write the first word that comes to mind beginning with that letter.
· Pull out random words from the dictionary, any book, newspaper, or magazine.

Sources of prompts are endless. They’re as limited as your imagination.

Here’s a sampling of prompts. Choose one and freewrite for fifteen minutes. Remember, no stopping. Do not edit. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s good or if it makes sense.
· A bathtub
· Describe your favorite meal.
· I remember…
· Write about feet.
· Write about hair.
· Write about pink.

Here’s a variation. This is a list of random words. Instead of freewriting about the individual prompts (though you’re welcome to as well), use all of these words in a freewrite. You may use them in any order. Do not worry about trying to make them fit. Write whatever comes to mind.
· plastic pink flamingos
· keys
· chicken soup
· step
· diary
· rose
· sock

Let yourself go and have fun with it…

“People often lack any voice at all in their writing because they stop so often in the act of writing a sentence and worry and change their minds about what words to use. They have none of the natural breath in their writing that they have in speaking....We have so little practice in writing, but so much more time to stop and fiddle as we read each sentence.
~ Peter Elbow


How many times have you said, "I don't know what to write about," or, "I would write if I knew what to write about"? Maybe you just need a noodge to get you started. I'm going to help you with that. I'm not going to teach you how to write. I'm not going to drum into your head writing rules or lessons on grammar or writing techniques. The exercises I'll be presenting will help uncover the great writing ideas you already have. Everyone has unlimited writing possibilities. They're just waiting to be uncovered. You don't have to live an exotic life or be a celebrity to find interesting things to write about. Everyone has an interesting story to share. Listen for stories. Most of all, listen to the stories from within.

Why exercise?
Writing exercises are important to the process of writing--to improve, to challenge, to experiment. A ballet dancer doesn't start pirouetting cold. She spends the first part of her session doing barre exercises, warming her muscles before starting to dance. Think of writing exercises as the barre work of writing. When you warm up with an exercise, your creative muscles will wake up, become warm and pliable, and soon your writing will gain energy and momentum. You'll ask yourself why it took so long to get started.

Warming up is only one of the many reasons to do writing exercises. Practice is necessary to grow as a writer. Judy Reeves says in A Writer's Book of Days, "Writers aren't born knowing the craft; writers are born with an urge to write, a curiosity, an imagination, and perhaps, a love of the language. The way to learn craft is through practice, and your notebook is the place of your apprenticeship. Even writers who are expert in their craft (those who've practiced long and hard) still try out ideas." Benjamin Franklin read authors he admired and created writing exercises to practice what he had learned. The notebooks of Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Plath were filled with exercises. In one notebook F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote how he "worked out" his novel, Tender is the Night.

You may not immediately find a place to use your writing exercises. Your writing may sound like dreck. It may be boring. That's a natural part of the writing process. Don't throw it out. Later you may want to return to a passage and develop it further. Maybe not. If nothing else, you can look back through your notebooks and track your progress, your increased discipline, your deepening creativity.

Each week, I'll post a new entry--part memoir, useless trivia--with an accompanying exercise. There is no right or wrong way to do the exercises. They're meant as a jumping off point. If your writing takes you in a different direction from what you originally intended, do not resist. Follow your muse and have fun with it. Thank you for taking me on your journey.
Let's get started...