Who Knew?

Photo of a mind map

A friend with whom I was involved in some theatrical productions once remarked on a creative brainstorming session that had been found wanting. The meeting had taken place in a conference room with off-white walls, a long table, and a few white boards upon which to write ideas. Oh, and a calendar.

But…the chairs were comfy.

The irony of that particular meeting was that a nice wooded area lay just outside that building, complete with tables at which to sit and a not-bad-at-all view. My friend’s take on this…obviously…was that there would have been more productively creative juices flowing had the group simply left the conference room and moved outside, where colors and variety and life in general would have inspired.

When I think of the creative process, I find it strange how we tend to limit ourselves. For example, I tend to not hand-write things. I type almost everything, either on a physical or virtual keyboard, usually in my iPod’s note feature (there has been the rare occasion when I’ve scribbled an idea down on a restaurant napkin, but, in retrospect, none of those ideas ever turned into reputable projects). A more applicable example is how I’ve always tended to work out my plots in dry outline or typed note format. Perhaps it was my elaborate outlining methods for grad school term papers that finally left me bent on this, but, in retrospect, I was doing plots this way long before grad school.

In the last few months, however, I found myself sort of shadow boxing with a project that I felt was a really great initial idea. I was writing blindly, squeaking out part of a chapter here or there, but never having any solid idea as to where the project was headed. Fortunately, my podcast addiction saved me. I heard someone reference mind-mapping (apparently there’s an app for that), and claim that the only way to do it right was still with pen and paper. So, a few evenings later, I took out some paper and a package of markers, and mind-mapped away.

The result: an incredibly complex plot with characters that I would never have thought of otherwise interacting in ways that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Suddenly, the project begins to tell me which direction it is going…and that’s exactly where the writer likes it to be.

Will this be a good project? Only time will tell that…it may turn out to be like some ideas I’ve scribbled down on napkins. What is certain, however, is that I am now a firm believer in using this method for all of my plots. Something about the kinesthetic motion of creating the map, and the visual ability to see the characters’ paths weave through each other in bright colors, caused synapses to fire that ideas on an outline never did. I’ve left my conference room for inspiring scenic vistas.

And I have no intention of returning.

Image attribution: Keith Davenport under Creative Commons.


  1. I find physical/kinesthetic brain storming very helpful. In college I would take different sections of class notes in different color pens as a mnemonic devise.

    Interesting post!

  2. I’ve approached writing projects in different ways. There’s no one answer that works for me. I’m a firm believer in developing some structure or outline so I have a roadmap of where I’m heading. So it’s weird that some of my best work has been stuff where I’ve taken an idea and just ran with it.

  3. Ryan, I found that aspect a helpful one as well, which is strange, because I’m normally an auditory learner. I think it was the colors that struck me the most.

    Michael, did you find that working better for short or long projects?

  4. David,

    Short projects, definitely. With longer projects, I’ve got an outline. I do have some unstructured bursts of creativity on some scenes within the longer projects. It works sometimes, but other times I find myself going back and starting from scratch on the scene.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.