Writing: A Methodical Way to Dream

On the last day of my college biology class, I turned in my final exam to my professor. He took it and studied me. “Another ‘A’ I’ll bet. You know, you are really good at this,” he said. “Are you interested in pursuing a degree in science? What is your major?”

I tensed because I knew what was coming. “Art,” I said.

He laughed, and a few students joined in. He shrugged and sighed. “Guess it takes all kinds to make a world.”

His amusement illustrates a perception that art is frivolous compared to academic subjects; or that a cerebral mindset inhabits a more respectable realm opposite the free-flowing state of imagination.

But creative endeavors like art are mentally intense because they require both processes; however, there does seem to be an uneasy partnership between the two. Maybe that is is why, for such a long time, I was so confused about the process of writing, which requires melding imagination with planning and analysis.

I used to think writing was just supposed “to happen.” Professional writers talked about characters that sprang to life on the page and acted on their own. They often described writing as a near-mystical state where everything just “comes together.”

I had had experiences like this, moments when something seemed to “take over,” and sometimes the writing was effortlessly good. Afterward I would be afraid to touch it, even when it had clear flaws. It seemed almost sacrilegious to impose my analytic self on the creative spontaneity that had occurred under the influence of the elusive muse. Why mess with magic?

Well, for one thing, “magic” is not real, and art produced purely by accident is not art.
But I had noticed that whenever I started to plan or write a plot for my stories, my excitement fizzled. Whenever I just “let writing happen,” it was more likely to have fresh imagery but it was usually not cohesive. The two methods of approaching creative writing, structural planning and dreaming, seemed to be in conflict with each other.

For planning, I was used to writing outlines for school, so for fiction I would always start there, but when I did, creative inspiration became elusive.

A turning point happened for me when I realized that creative problem solving needs to be approached in a different way than you solve, say, a math problem.

I had thought plotting was purely cerebral since it involved planning and sequencing. But plotting fiction is a creative task rather than a strictly linear, left-brained one.

Before, whenever I worked on a plot outline and a question came up, I would always go with the first answer that came to me. Question: After Sally is fired, what does she do? Answer: she looks for another job.

There is nothing wrong with this answer and it is perfectly logical. But what I needed to be doing was generating multiple options, good or bad, so I could choose. “Sally stays home, sulks, and binges on ice-cream. Or Sally steals from her mom. Or Sally pawns her wedding ring.”

Generating multiple ideas to choose from engages the artist in me. As in math, the ultimate goal is to reach a single solution, but art is about making choices. For that, multiple options are needed.

To me there is no better tool for generating multiple options a technique called clustering. I learned this method from Gabriele Rico in her book Writing the Natural Way. Clustering begins with an idea, which can be anything: a color such as blue or an idea such as “anger.”

You write the word down, circle it, and free-associate, drawing a line from the center that leads to the new idea. From anger an association might be “fire.” Then “fire” might become the next center from which to free-associate: “hell,” which carries religious associations. Or it could be “hot chocolate,” which may transport me to a memory of “snow.”

Repeating this process a number of times to creates a radial web of ideas.
The associations may or may not seem logical. There is no wrong way to cluster, and knowing that creates the relaxed state of mind conducive to creativity. After I cluster for a while, something in my brain will usually “click” and I will know exactly what I want to write. Usually I feel excited.

Clustering generates many ideas, which is a good thing because art is about saying “I like this better than that.” The more ideas you have, the more you increase your chances of finding an option that makes you say, “This is awesome.”

However, my analytic side does play an important role in creativity. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd said in a workshop that writing comes about through a combination of “madness” and “measure.”

An ideal writing process honors both. In the “madness” stages of clustering and writing the rough draft, I allow thoughts to flow freely, no matter how silly or illogical. But the final product ultimately needs a internal logic, a cohesive design, a container for transferring the “madness” to others.

Structuring writing, identifying plot inconsistencies, revising for grammatical correctness, creating transitions between paragraphs, and analyzing rough drafts to identify problems are all about “measure.”

But how to you apply the more cerebral methods of problem solving to creativity without draining the life out of it?

I will sometimes “discover” my rough draft as I write. Images, dialogue, and character actions often surprise me. But sometimes when try to I force them to “make sense,” the playfulness is lost.

I have to make a conscious effort to let original, sometimes whimsical, imagery stay rather than replacing them by more sensible abstract terms that I am more certain people will understand.

At other times I will begin by writing with an outline, but my rough draft “wants” to go in a different direction. Sometimes I go with it and try to identify a purpose to my rough draft I might not have been aware of when writing it.

Instead of forcing order onto the rough draft, I let the rough draft “tell” me what its purpose is. I take note of recurring themes and any loose structural patterns. My initial purpose might be “how I tried to sneak a kitten home when I was eight.” My new purpose could be: “why my parents hate cats.” Once I discover my purpose, writing becomes a sort of puzzle that makes use of both logic and imagination.

I like puzzles, which means I sometimes enjoy the experience of being temporarily stumped. During those moments, I am relaxed and alert rather than frustrated, which is how I want to be when I write.

This mindset was useful when I was doing on-line freelance work. I was constantly being sent rambling drafts and manuscripts that were definitions of chaos. When I first looked at them, I would always think that turning them around would be impossible without starting over.

But as I read over them and made notes, I could usually see an underlying order to the text that the client may not have been aware of while writing. Themes and motifs appeared that suggested an overall purpose.

Once I identified it, revising became easier. I knew which passages needed to be cut and which needed to be strengthened.

In the same way, if my personal rough drafts begins to ramble I can always focus it by clarifying to myself what my purpose is such as to “tell what it is like to have bipolar disorder” or “explain how to tie a shoe.” Then I cut everything that does not support the purpose and strengthen the parts that do.

I try to allow for this kind of flexibility in my writing process. First I cluster and write a messy rough draft in my notebook. On the methodical end, I identify any hidden structure; clarify my purpose; type my rough draft and make changes as I go; revise; then polish.

The process works for me because it satisfies the needs for both madness and measure; for spontaneity and the need for structure and clear expression.
No matter how messy a rough draft is, it is an important step toward a cohesive product. As long as a rough draft is only in my head, there is nothing to critique, no practical questions to ask of it. But as soon as I write it down, that changes and I switch into question-asking puzzle mode.

If, for example, my writing seems too sentimental I ask, what is it that makes writing seem sentimental? Is it the overuse of abstract words such as “love”? It it trite expressions? Is it an overly dramatic sentence rhythm not matching the drama of the events described?

If I write these questions down, usually a solution follows. For example, I could tone down my sentence rhythm to match my less than dramatic event. Or I could make the event more traumatic to match the intense emotion suggested by the rhythm.
For the second situation, imagination is needed to invent my new scenario, so I would turn to clustering.

I like clustering because it feels purely free and imaginative to me. But in writing I have not found a way to keep my imagination and analytic side entirely separate. There is a constant dialogue going on between them. Sometimes my imagination does not become fully engaged until after I have typed my rough draft.

But being clear about what kind of problem I am trying to solve, technical or creative, brings clarity to the writing process so I am never at a loss for what to do.
My cerebral side creates structure. My inner artist says “I like this better than that.” Both are important.

Contrary to a common perception, art is not dumb. It is not easy. It is not accidental. Rather, it engages the entire personality, bringing cerebral and imaginative processes together.

Like any art, writing is a challenge, but it does not have to be frustrating. Writing is problem solving, which is the essence of skill, a relief from trial and error, and the path to mastery.

11 thoughts on “Writing: A Methodical Way to Dream

  1. When I took a screenplay that I'd written, then tried to convert it into novel form, I found that my creative processes were stifled. This is because writing a screenplay usually involves a well tested – even mathematical – method, a three act formula where you look to increase tension or emotion at certain points along the way. What I discovered was that I was a much more creative writer in free flow, with only the skeletal structure of the plot in my head. There are the two halves of the brain, each equally important when writing, and it is in the communication between these halves where creativity comes. Thus, one might call the Corpus Callosum the creative centre of the brain, since it conducts creative thought building.

  2. I've never written a screenplay, but I would like to try someday. As you suggested, I have heard that the form functions a lot like a mathematical machine with every part moving the plot forward. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to take something that complex and convert it into a novel where point of view and sensory descriptions become important factors as well. Screenplays and novels are such different forms,

    It would be easy for the left side of the brain to become so occupied with the headache of conversion that creativity would take a backseat. A state of creative “free flow” seems to produce writing that is more “alive.”.

    Thanks so much reading my post and sharing your insights!!!. 🙂

  3. Hey Lisa:

    Great post, first of all. A thoughtfully written take on the creative process. For me, personally, I have a tendency to be a “pantzer” because I have this flash of an idea & I get so excited with the possibilities that I completely overlook all the sneaky little pitfalls implicit in the idea.

    Often, I find I've written myself into a salient neither artistically nor logically tenable. That's when I tend to take a step back & do my “what if he/she did this instead of” kind of work. It's similar to the clustering approach, though I have to confess to being way less structured & as a result, I suspect it takes longer than it should to move past my sticking point. I'm inspired to be more disciplined about it, thanks to your post. It may prove to cut down on the amount of dead time.

    As always, thanks for sharing this!

    Best wishes,

  4. I know all too well what you mean about the “sneaky pitfalls.” I was about 100 pages into one of my novels when I realized my core concept was flawed and most of what I had written would need to be jettisoned.

    Good to know I am not the only one but sorry you have experienced something similar.

    Asking “what if” is a perfectly good technique and I do that too, but I usually combine it with clustering. Clustering has become my security blanket but not everyone finds it necessary.

    Thanks so much for sharing your own process and your insights! 🙂

  5. Amazing post, thank you for writing this! You're one of the first writers I've encountered who has made such a connection. In my own personal experience when I share the amount of analytical detail that goes into writing people are surprised.

    It wasn't until this year when I began my blog (sort of a philosophy of fiction/creativity blog) and began reflecting on what I write, that I came to realize this. Sometimes I've found my processes changing, and with noticing, I added a layer of complexity to my writing process.

    It's very much as you've said, it's a dialogue with two sides of equal intensity going back and forth. Writing requires this flexibility to look at multiple layers of a narrative and apply the level of analysis necessary for each layer. Genre, plot, setting characterization, ect. You need to look at each layer and seeing what logics apply. But it also requires the imagination to generate content at will and imagine a number of valid combinations that can yield a sensible narrative.

    That's the great thing about art. It is free flowing and serendipitous while making sense. The reason art is beautiful or enjoyable is that it has a sense of logic. There are a set of rules that have to be constructed in order for art to be recognizable. The whole reason art is enjoyable is that it has a fidelity to something outside itself. Creativity probably seems so easy and free because people who are in tune with their creativity have internalized some of the logics that their specialty requires.

  6. Fab post!!!! While reading it the well-worn phrase “Let go and let God” came to me. When I don't force the writing & it just flows without becoming too rambly/chaotic… well, that's one of the best uses of time I can think of!

    I remember reading in one of L.M. Montgomery's “Emily” books how the protagonist when Emily wrote a story it was as if something else took over her altogether- something that was rather otherworldly and not in a good way! Her teacher, the enigmatic Mr. Carpenter, noticed this element of her story and told her while it was very well-written, it was best not to write that way again. (She agreed with him!) She wasn't present in her story and it showed.

    Now, I haven't been taken over by some freaky entity while writing, thank God, and I doubt at this point it will happen, but that part of of the book really creeped me out!

    Sorry to go off on a tangent here. I still haven't tried clustering, but I need to remember to give it a try when writer's block pays me a visit! Thank you for letting me ramble – you continue to be a steady source of inspiration and encouragement and I'm super-grateful to you for it!!!!!!!

  7. Excellent post! Definitely agree with you that a) art is not dumb, and b) both the logical and illogical play an enormous role in creativity. Logic is indispensable for planning and consistency, but what would be the point of writing at all if every last detail were known in advance? The act of discovery would be missing, which would be very sad indeed as that is probably my favorite part of writing. For me the plans and basic concepts for a project are kind of like a skeleton, satisfying the need for a preliminary shape, support structure, and direction. But after that it becomes the job of the illogical and subconscious to traverse the skeleton and discover and/or create the body. The two processes are not isolated either; they end up playing off of one another. As the body is discovered the skeleton may change to adapt, and these adaptations will undoubtedly end up causing new and different aspects of the body to emerge.

    Thanks for such a wonderful post and for getting me thinking about the creative process again!

  8. I am so happy you liked the post!!! I agree: the discovery process is my favorite part of the creative process too. There are writers who can plot everything and write it exactly as they planned it, and they are sometimes called “architects” as opposed to “gardeners” who discover everything as they go along. I am somewhere in the middle. Without any structure I wander and feel lost, but if I follow my plan to the letter I get bored. To use your analogy, sometimes I have to change the “skeleton.”

    Thank you for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts!! 🙂

  9. Thanks so much Dyane!!! So glad you enjoyed it! The book you mentioned sounds interesting. I may have to check it out. I think some writers are very attracted to the idea of writing being something that happens to them rather than something that they do. And that story seems to drive home the point that passive “art,” if you can call it that, is not really art.

    As for clustering, it isn't absolutely necessary but I enjoy it. It does seem to tap into thoughts that are just below the surface in a way that changes my writing process for the better. If you ever decide to pick up a copy of “Writing the Natural Way,” let me know what you think of it. To me it was so much fun, I never wanted to stop. It seemed to unleash an endorphin “buzz.”

    I'm so glad my writing has inspired you! You inspire me back!! 🙂

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