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