Part Two of non-writing (ish) tools for a writer’s toolbox: Mind Maps

Part One here.

It is always useful to try to trick my thinking out of usual habits and patterns of thought. My brain is lazy and too often follows the path of least resistance to finish a task. When writing, this laziness leads to cliches and shallow (one dimensional) observations that do nothing to pique the interest of a reader (or me, the writer, for that matter). Also, I prevent wider interpretations, deeper meanings, messages from the subconscious, before they have a chance to arise.  Mind maps are a quick and (relatively) easy way to provoke (and see) expansions of meaning and the connections between them.

It is best, when creating a mind map, to relax and clear your mind…think meditation or yoga practice here. Sometimes it is good to set a timer for these exercises – 10 minutes tops – otherwise it could keep unfolding. That’s okay too…just follow your intuition on this one.

On a blank piece of paper, in the middle of the page, write a word or phrase you are wrestling with (or select one at random from the middle of a book, a dictionary, a cereal box, it really doesn’t matter…sometimes the most banal source will yield the richest ideas). Circle the word or phrase. Relax (yes, I keep having to tell myself this). Look at that word/phrase and allow your mind to drift and dream.  Write down the images and associations as they come, anywhere on the page…as the associations are written down, they spark additional thoughts and images. Write these down too. Enjoy it. When the images start to wind down or the timer goes off, stop. It’s good to get up and walk away from the desk for a minute or two: make a cup of tea or gaze out the window. I’m usually too impatient though and dive into the next step, which is to look at what has been rendered on the page and start to draw lines of connections between them (often I do these steps simultaneously too). Very soon, the lines become tangled and cross each other.  This is okay. At this point I realise there’s a lot more to think about than I had originally thought but I can now see avenues of exploration I might move through.

Mind maps are good to use as a writing prompt when facing an intimidating blank page. But they are also great tools for deepening existing writing: maybe an interesting image, or a provocative object, or a weird description or phrase has surfaced in a draft…but it doesn’t feel right—it nags—it doesn’t quite hang together with the sentiments (paragraph) around it. Trust the nagging/curiosity feeling. Copy the image/object/phrase onto a blank piece of paper to use as the starting node in a mind map.

Mind maps might also be used as art making device, subbing in a sort of shorthand thinking for how a work of art might be built. Theo Anthony, an American film maker, uses mind maps to work through generating ideas and connections, but then takes this one step further by planning his shots (camera type, lighting, angle, sequencing etc.) according to the nodes on his developing, evolving, project-based mind maps.  In a way, this allows a lot of technical planning (to be on location, to select film equipment, etc.) without the creative constraint of a complete storyboard.  His process, using mind maps this way, retains a flexibility, and enables resonances and surprises to illuminate organically. In a way, it’s as if he provides the operational support for the art, image, and beauty to reveal itself through the making.   

Part One: non-writing (ish) tools for a writer’s toolbox

I read a lot of scientific papers for my day job. I also keep up (read: try to keep up, it’s impossible) with a mish mash of related current events (politics, economics, social issues, social media, etc.).  It’s a lot of information to synthesize; bits and pieces overlap and often contradict one another. I use drawing to help me see patterns and connections better. Drawing also helps me untangle processes or ideas.

When I say drawing, I mean I’m creating a picture, a figure, a graphic (or a combination of all three) to simplify a complex concept as a snapshot. When you’re given five minutes and four slides in a PowerPoint presentation to explain a sweeping history, a body of conflicting evidence, and a suite of recommendations for how to move forward, you get pretty good at honing essentials.

But I’ve oversimplified how this is done.

Getting to essentials is a process of creating a lot of different graphical (and text) forms so that each time I work through it, I’m understanding my material differently, more deeply…and, I think, most importantly, for me, I begin to understand the material enough to communicate it to another person (an audience, a reader).

 I have found similar methods helpful for creative writing projects, assisting me to see patterns and connections, but also, generating new ideas, connections, or images when I’m stuck.

I’m still in the beginning phase of creative writing, so my skill level remains stubbornly low—the raw materials and meanings I’ve generated in my own writings…well, I haven’t developed an ability to understand what it is I want to say, well enough, to be able to communicate it clearly to a reader. Practice. Practice.

But the following “drawing” methods help…drawing as in drawing out (of chaos, a fog, or confusion).

Here is the first in a series of posts outlining non-writer (ish) methods to see and arrange text differently (for deeper meaning making, understanding, to provoke variations in perspective, draw connections from disparate elements, and generate new thinking about your own writing or another’s).

  1. Colour-coding

One way to do this is by highlighting, using a variety of colours, different aspects of written text to chunk out various elements of craft: dialogue, emotions or mood, word repetitions, abstract words, metaphors, back story, etc.  I was introduced to this technique in a workshop with Rachel Thompson and I have also written about how Douglas Glover applies this technique to analyze craft styles. When you hold the text away from you, squinting your eyes to blur the words and looking only at the splotches of colour and how they hang together (or not), you can see how the various components relate to one another in a piece, whether any patterns are illuminated, or any other resonances. 

I’m still at the stage of learning to do this in other writers’ texts so I can teach myself how to do this better in my own work. It is a slow, but gratifying, endeavour.  

To take this idea into a less two-dimensional space and enable working with aspects of text more physically, consider using coloured index cards on which to jot down quick summaries of different structural elements of a larger work, for example: cultural references; reflections; speculative projections; historical references; theme elements, etc. These are examples of higher-level structural elements; of course, one could drill down to more detailed craft levels like those listed above, especially in a shorter work.  The idea here is to arrange the coloured cards on a wall (I use the floor) in the order they have been created or written (or the order you think they should go in), and then start to shift them around. Arrange and rearrange and ask yourself these questions:

  • How does meaning change when the patterns of coloured index cards change? 
  • What vibrations start to hum when certain elements are placed side by side – does a different meaning emerge from the space between?
  • When does a repeated pattern start to become boring? When does predictable become uninteresting? Or, at what point will a reader drop this and go find something more exciting to do?

…one must be able to find a plot, a route, a “solution”.

Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art No. 8 (Spring/Summer 1983), pp. 37-42.

This method helps “see” a path, a solution. Or it can open a door into creating something else.

I started this latter technique for a writing project, a longer form CNF work I’m working on now, thinking it would help me to uncover a structure or a pattern I could use to write into (ha ha fast track my writing, no dice).  But I implemented it too soon (always jumping ahead of myself).  Instead, I’m challenging myself to generate more foundational material before I launch into this bird’s eye view and structural playfulness.

Next up in this series (next month): Mind Maps