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small step – clustering

Mind mapping/clustering seems to be a good way to generate and record random half-thoughts that might eventually be used. Yesterday I spent some time mapping both what the Golden Gate Bridge means in this story and what’s important about the setting being San Francisco. I brought my SF map to Germany and yesterday looked it over – an exercise in both reminiscence and imagination.

With the map I was also able to think about whether or not it’s feasible to pull in a sunset seen from the East Bay, setting through the GGB.  Just a thought I had – and I guess it would mean that at some point I’d need to determine where on the horizon (during which particular season) the sun actually appears to set… Probably too much research than I need to be getting into at this point, but I did write the possibility down on my cluster.

This morning I stepped away from physical objects and put down “Characters” as a central circle for a cluster and promptly stalled out.  Maybe “Characters” is too broad for my creative mind – but I did something I’m learning to do more often and it helped.  I opened up my cheap notebook and wrote out about being stumped by “Characters.” Eeventually I turned from that page and clustered a little about one of the main characters, asking questions and getting more detail.

Asking questions is key, especially, “What if…?” and simply writing out what’s in my mind, journal style seems to help.  These are things that I need to be consciously aware of having in my toolbox.  I’m also finding that though I recognize that such things as a “toolbox” with “tools” in it is symbolic, it helps to accord them a degree of imaginal or magical reality.  I have a toolbox in my mind, and it’s in the studio of my mind where I work to bring words out into the world.

My next step is to continue with the clustering and then to go back and look through HTTS lessons (and walkthroughs) – backtracking a bit to make up for having pushed GOTS to the background.

Translating Clustering for the Left Brain

I love that Holly (re)introduced the technique of clustering to us.  I’m sure it was offered as a tool sometime in high school, right around the time we learned to outline, but I used it only infrequently.

In my first HTTS go-round, I turned my Sweet Spot Map into a Sweet Spot Atlas just by writing it into a hand sewn book.  There’s so much room in my book, it’s a little overwhelming, but it also helps me face the fact that I have given my creative life permission to take up more room.  Little by little my SSM is growing.

For my 2008 NaNo novel (before HTTS), I did a little clustering, but really started in on it for my first HTTS project.  With the Walkthrough’s Lesson Two demo in which Holly clustered for her current book project, I realized I hadn’t tried giving GOTS its own SSM.  I spent some time last week doing that and it yielded some insights and possibilities which I’m so happy to welcome into the stew in my mind.

What I’m working on now, is taking that “stew” and trying to figure out a way to let my Left Brain, who takes one look at the cluster-mess and goes, “eww, you really want me to look at all the scribbles as if they mean something?” have an easier time making sense of it.  My Muse-mind LOVES t0 make the cluster bubbles, my rational side throws its hands up in despair.

I thought, however, since my logical and organized self likes lists, that making a list might be a way to make all the information useful (rather than just fun to collect).

Among the clustering pages I made which are not SSMs, which will only be posted under password protection, were ones organized around two problem areas I’m looking for solutions to.

The one I’m working with here had to do with a sense that I need to carefully approach how I represent the fairy tale element of the story.  I’m basing this story in the reality we (mostly) all inhabit.  Earth, 1930s, California, regular people.  At the same time there’s a very important connection with the fairy tale realm and I have a particular sense of how the two are supposed to relate.

So, in an attempt to translate a half-page of bubbles into something useful, here’s the information presented in list form.  Just having written the information down may have been enough, but it’s likely that I’ll need to go back and add to what’s here or insert things midway or make sharp turns elsewhere.

It was interesting to find that as I followed some branches further in I got into the detailed workings of the story itself – so this started out as a “talk” about the tone of the book and ended up with a few specific questions and ideas to be sorted out later:

  • **Fairytale element has to be subtle and believable**
  •      -not overly otherwordly or intrusive
  •      – a natural progression and regression to something Artie used to know but has forgotten
  •           – not so much another realm, but a return to an inner realm
  •           – she has to go somewhere she’s touched before
  •           – her dad’s book is key
  •                 – her mom’s been hiding it
  •                 – coloring/puzzles/mazes/riddles
  •                      – comic book expert brother? helps solve clues/codes/ciphers?
  •      – had to have been introduced naturally, by her dad?
  •           – why would mother reject it?
  •           – because she rejects father for hurting her
  •                – mother: he has stars in his eyes.
  •                – she resents his freedom
  •            – maybe he couldn’t be tied down or “pinned” down by relationship?
  •                – he’s imaginative, artistic, hard to get him to be responsible in a conventional way
  •                – but he’s still around

What I see is that I quickly turned to story specifics which don’t appear to be directly relevant to the original problem, except that having written it all down it’s as though I’ve put a bookmark in my mind, a mental sticky note, that will remind me of what is required as I write the story.  One thing I find, though, is that it’s the reality-based aspects of the story that allow for the fairy tale elements. So long as I keep true to the characters’ true needs and motives, I think the cross-reality aspects can be balanced.

Question for you:  How do you capture both the creative flow that clustering offers AND allow the clusters to become a useful planning tool?  Are they mostly just idea sparkers or do you have a way to integrate the information systematically into your planning?

giving form to the voices in my head

Hmmm, that title sounds like I’m entering tricky territory, like maybe you wouldn’t want to meet me at your local cafe for a cuppa conversation.  But that’s not what I meant.  Really!

What this is about is a technique for working with the mind’s tendencies (the helpful and the harmful) to track off into non-rational territory, into the realms of feelings or desires, creativity or judgments, or what have you.

Early on in How to Think Sideways, there’s a lesson on getting to know your creative/unconscious mind by personifying it as a Muse.  While I will post about that experience at a later time, here I will give you an example of how it can be useful to follow with the images presented by the unconscious mind when you become aware of territory that seems “loaded.”  This is along the lines of Active Imagination as developed by Jung but as I really haven’t explored that too deeply, I can’t say that there are more than nominal similarities.  While Jung’s method was really about “following” the images that arise out of the unconscious and letting them lead the way in further, I’m not talking about that here.  This is visualization at a basic level.

In the first week’s lesson, Holly analyzes the mental barriers that prevent writers and others from being successful, in whatever way they define it.  One of my biggest stumbling blocks is a very insistent case of perfectionism and residual (carried over from when I was a kid it seems) fear of screwing up and not fulfilling my own expectations.

I’d benefited years ago from visualizing my “inner critic” who had austere hair and a sharp, no-nonsense face with an eye for mistakes.  I sent her out a door in the attic of my brain and told her I didn’t need her help.  With her gone I’ve been able to be relatively free in my writing – I don’t freeze up on the page, don’t generally stall and humm and haw for time while I scramble about trying not to write something that would reflect badly on me.  That she would have judged me as having poor writing style or choosing tactless subject matter (for example, writing about depression or writing about family stories) has not been too much of a hindrance.  I don’t suffer under her insistence that I conform to certain social standards, for example and allow my writing to go where it will.  Likewise, the grammarian/hyper-spell checker (who cringes at all my parenthetical statements) doesn’t get free reign.  That came in handy when I was writing for NaNoWriMo because the goal is quantity of words typed and apparently a lot of writers get stalled on word choice and grammatical errors or typos.  Over the years, though, I’ve learned to be relatively undistracted by those issues, or at least to be able to ferret out the trail of what I want to say no matter the distractions that show up.

What I hadn’t realized until this week, however, is that the judge had crept back into my life but in a new form.  Or maybe it’s that I’m now recognizing the other areas where self-judgment has become a stumbling block and am looking to clean the path up a little.

One method for accessing the strange information in the unconscious mind is rapid, uncensored writing which is actively imagining on paper.  Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, uses “morning pages” (and recommends they be in the morning, before rationality takes over for the day) and Natalie Goldberg talks about “writing practice” where pen is put to paper and you write whatever comes up for typically ten or more minutes.  In my Tuesday writing group (which follows Amherst Writers and Artists’ Guidelines) we start with a prompt and write whatever wants to be written.  I’ve wanted to incorporate more of that kind of writing on my own time though, and have attempted morning pages of my own.  Usually it’s a struggle because my eyes still want to be asleep if I’m just going to sit in bed at 5:30 am, no matter there’s a pen in my hand.  But I can type with my eyes closed and let the keystrokes report what’s going on behind the scenes.

I found a site that serves as a repository for just this kind of writing and they have little bells and whistles that make it a fun thing to log in and type up a storm (all writing is kept private).  So I’ve been doing that since Wednesday, writing whatever blather is in my mind when I wake up.  Trust me, it’s mostly blather, however on the second day I was writing about what had been covered in HTTS and I suddenly realized that my mental space was being inhabited by a newly recognized inner critic!  Had I not been doodling about on 750words.com I probably would’ve been a lot slower to figure this out.

It turns out that Mr. Slick is a promotional agent and he’s judging everything I do to see if I meet his standard of awesomeness.  He cares about his reputation and how well I carry it for him.  He has an eye toward whether or not my life (and therefore my writing) meets the standards of the genre into which he’s steering me:  Am I imaginative enough? Mystical enough? Deep and mythological?  He requires it.  Do my ideas tie up tightly, like perfect intricate origami? Is there intelligence and subtlety?  Is the meaning profound?  Do I measure up on his cool-meter?  Apparently, according to him, I hired him so that I could fulfill his expectations of brilliance and edgy non-conformity.

He lives in Berkeley (it’s an easy commute), where on the street I never measure up to anyone who’s anyone and in Berkeley everyone is someone and if they’re not, they’re at least up and coming (in intellectual/creative circles.  I don’t think Berkely’s a hotbed of pop idols).

Thursday, when he knew he was ratted out and I was looking to sack him, this Mr. Slick started saying, “Why neighbor, you don’t mean that!  I’m here to help you. Stick with me baby and you’ll go far!  I have it all planned out, there’s a trajectory to stardom and you’re riding the train with the ticket I got for you.  If you don’t screw it up, you’re going to be the next big thing, the Billy Collins of the blogging world, the Mary Oliver of novels, the Rumi, the Rilke of the century [oh how he’s pandering to the poet these days]. You’re going to be different from all the other struggling writers with me on board.  I’m going to hold you to task and only then will you accomplish what you can’t accomplish on your own. Only I know what you’re capable of and without me you’re going nowhere.”

How the hell did this guy get on my payroll?

I imagined a wolverine eating him.  Neatly and symbolically, I mean.

Which seems to have worked because now I feel like laughing about how ridiculous it all sounds.
——
Later, the astute  Texanne suggested that Mr. Slick would make a great comic villain… something I hadn’t considered, but now the idea of him, working for me on a really short leash does sound about right.

image source: National Geographic
No wolverines or figments of my imagination were harmed in the making of this blog post.