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).
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