Clustering: My Favorite Creative Tool


I hear writers say all the time, “I am stuck.” And I know how it is. I have been there.

But I feel distressed when those who complain of being stuck include my writer friends who have read my book on getting past block, A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom.

When I hear them say they are “stuck,” I always wonder: Did they read my chapter on clustering? Have they tried it? Really tried it? I bet not. When I was getting over my own creative block, clustering, a mind mapping technique, was a big part of my recovery, which is why I devoted a chapter to it in A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom.

However, I remembered that I had once been reluctant to try it. When a speaker first introduced the process to me long ago in a writing workshop, I had no interest in it at all. My reaction was, “Clustering? A mind map? I am a writer, not a cartographer. I bet Stephen King never clustered.”

I had a romantic notion of what writing looked like, a bias that came from television dramas in which writers sat in a mountainside cabin with their fingers galloping across a keyboard. At no time had a movie ever showed a writer clustering, or even plotting for that matter. Besides, I hated the word cluster. It sounded sticky and untrustworthy.

However, clustering is indispensable to me now, a creative problem solving process described in the best-selling classic Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico, a must-read for any writer interested in mastering creativity.

Clustering is simple. You choose a key phrase or word such as “turn,” circle it, then draw lines radiating from it. You free-associate to get new words or phrases which you write at the opposite ends of the branching lines.

The new words become new centers, and you repeat the process over and over again, free-associating, until a sense of an overall pattern emerges. That is, you begin to feel a tug, a sense of direction about what to write. With me there is a sudden sense of excitement with the thought, “I have it. I know now what I want to do.”

The exercises in Writing the Natural Way were so much fun, I am sometimes tempted to go back and do them again, although I no longer need to. I apply clustering every day. I enjoy it. I trust it. It rarely, if ever, fails.

Moreover, it is totally relaxing. It frees me from the anxiety of writing a first draft, the insecurity which comes from trying to create something from nothing. The associations of a cluster do not even have to make sense, although I often discover surprising connections that were not apparent at first.

Gabriele Rico suggests writing a vignette after clustering, a short story, paragraph, or passage, taking no more than a few minutes, There is no way to write a clustered vignette “wrong,” but the vignettes will often have a “rounded out” feel to it, a sense of unity, design, and closure. Some of the nucleus words she suggests clustering are “turn” or “toy.”

A word like “turn” is good to start with because it is so wonderfully evocative. “Turn” lends itself to metaphors of change. This is a cluster of the word “turn.”


My vignette:

I imagined my house was a place that would never change. I would look at the furniture, the couch, the love seat, objects I saw day after day. They did not move as I looked at them. They did not turn. They were there yesterday, they were there now, so why not tomorrow? I am reliable, they said, I will be here forever, you can count on it. At those moments, I could imagine that I was in the eye of a temporal hurricane, so when the winds finally came and blew me from my home, I was surprised.  The furniture is no longer there, and neither am I. I had to turn, and it did too. Someday I will have to turn again.

The word “turn” triggered some interesting associations that I would not have likely come up with otherwise. During the day thoughts center on what we plan to do next or what we should be doing: fixing supper, making an appointment, or getting oil changed in the car.

It can be difficult to transition from thinking about paying the phone bill to writing about innermost feelings or dreams. Clustering does an excellent job of drawing out the big ideas and making larger patterns clear. Other words Gabriele Rico suggests clustering: “narrow,” “time,” “toy,” “round,” or “letting go.” All of these suggestions are evocative and a good place to begin.

Many writers believe ideas are scarce, when in fact they have far too many. The problem is, it is impossible to keep all our memories and ideas at the forefront of consciousness at all times. It would be hard to function if we did. But when we sit down to write, we need a way of reaching into our well of knowledge, dreams, and experiences.

tI was so happy with the process, I began using clustering before writing any rough draft. I needed more spontaneity than a formal outline allowed, but I also needed a sense of direction, unity and purpose. Clustering addresses all those needs. The radial mapping creates a windfall of ideas to choose from. An outline sometimes narrows down possibilities too quickly, whereas clustering expands generously before it closes in on a direction.

If you are new to clustering, begin with short passages, which can be completed in five minutes or less. Enjoy what clustering feels like before you begin to apply it to anything “serious” like a novel. Do numerous clustering exercises so that you experience the “tug” of a direction often enough that you learn to trust it. Better yet, get the book Writing the Natural Way and do the exercises. Then try applying clustering to larger projects.

After experimenting with shorter pieces, I found different ways to apply clustering, so I now use it extensively in writing stories, plotting novels, and planning essays. As a result, I am never “stuck.”

Some writers are reluctant to abandon the seemingly simpler process of just sitting down and typing out everything in a single draft, but my writing improved dramatically and became far more enjoyable once I accepted that writing is a non-linear, messy, multistep process.

I now count clustering as “writing,” even though drawing maps does not look as “writerly”as dancing my fingers across a keyboard (which I still do; that just comes later).

Granted, not all writers need clustering, but for those who constantly struggle with “being stuck,” it can be life changing. For me, it has made the difference between waiting for inspiration to visit and going directly to where the inspiration lives, taking it by the hand, and inviting it to my house for milk and cookies.

Luckily, as everyone knows, inspiration cannot resist cookies.

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5 thoughts on “Clustering: My Favorite Creative Tool

  1. I sometimes try this. Been doing it for years. It usually works, too. Sometimes walking helps. I never knew it had a name, though. I always pick a word at random. I don’t have a selection of words or phrases to use, as they will likely only trigger the same word associations. But clustering does indeed help.

  2. Welcome back, my friend!!!! I felt like I struck gold when I found your book, never imagining that I’d make a wonderful friend as well! :))))

    I thought I wrote a 5-star Amazon review, but when I checked there a few minutes ago (I wanted to copy and paste it here), it’s no longer there!!! Do you remember anything about that???? Yikes!!!!

    • It has been bothering me that I never replied to this. You are such an awesome friend and I am so glad you liked “Trail of Crumbs”!!!

      Not sure what happened with Amazon! But knowing you liked the book is enough. Looking forward to “Birth of a New Brain”! Hope it is going well!

      I found out recently there will be a delay on the publication of my novel because it is so long. My editor told me she was not even close to announcing a street date. I guess I am okay with that as long as progress is being made.

      Sorry about all of your upheavals lately! If you ever get the time or feel like it, update me on how things are going with your writing! XoXO

      Thanks again for commenting! 😀

    • Clustering in a powerful technique and it’s awesome that you’re already using it! Wish I had learned about it ealier. 🙂

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