Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Staying Creative, Part 2: Associate Freely

As a college student, I heard from a writing instructor this tip: “Just write about anything without stopping; this kind of free association will lead to something.” I was skeptical. Until that moment, I had learned that my job as a writer was to compose a perfect first draft from a specific prompt in a given time, usually 15 to 30 minutes. Who had time for such nonsense? How can writing about anything possibly lead to something?

It turned out that this piece of advice was one of the best tips that I have ever heard—and one of the best tips that I can give to developing writers.

What I was taught before that lesson was to stick around until some authority imposed on me a writing topic and to respond on demand with an unrevised, unedited draft before the class was over. That procedure might work well in a classroom to sort the fast writers from the slow ones, but it does not necessarily sort the exceptional writers from the unexceptional ones.

Good writing takes time. You can read interviews of hundreds of successful, famous writers who will say that they spend a good amount of time researching, sketching ideas, and rewriting—none of which fall in to the drafting step of the writing process.

When in a writing bottleneck, try free association, an easy and fun technique that has worked for me and countless others numerous times. It can be revealing for business and technical writers in a funk or for fiction writers at an impasse in a story line or character development. Just as important, this extra step will not waste time but save it. It sure beats staring blankly at the computer, playing video games, or walking away from the computer when struggling with writer’s block as a writing task is due. Before trying free association, or writing about anything to lead to something, you might want to follow these guidelines:

  1. Lower your standards. You might be your own worst critic, so you’ll want to expand your tolerance for nonsense. Accept irrelevant ideas, inaccurate information, poor organization, illogical transitions, dreadful style, grammatical mistakes, and poor spelling. You will catch all these issues during the rewrite.

2. Broaden your vision. This does not mean that you should look far and wide for ideas to write about; it means that you should broaden your perspective of what is acceptable to write about. If a proposal for buying a smartphone is your topic and you’re stuck with only memories of your last trip to the Canadian Rockies (as I once was), then write about that hike up a mountain trail past that glacial lake. All roads lead to your topic.

3. Enjoy the game. Free association is truly about play. Allow yourself the luxury of having fun. No one is writing for you, nor is anyone watching you write, and for now you are writing to no one but yourself. So what do you have to lose? Delight in the ideas that pop into your head and follow them with your fingers as you document all that you imagine.

Here is a brief excerpt of a free association exercise I did on a smartphone proposal, which did include a passage about the Canadian Rockies!

Three weeks in the Canadian Rockies. Awesome. Seven national parks in twenty days: Jasper, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Kootenay, Waterton Lakes, and Banff. Not quite a thousand miles of driving and far more than a hundred miles of hiking. Up dense forests leading to clearings at the edge of mile-high mountains overlooking pristine lakes radiating from glacial flour. No one in sight. Amazed that I was able to receive a phone call half-way up from Lake Louise from a client, the US Navy. The signal didn’t work at ground level near some populated areas, but here I am talking to a Navy SEAL based in Virginia Beach some 2,500 miles away. Crazy. I can’t even get someone in Manhattan from my mobile phone when I’m riding a New York City Transit subway, but I’m on subways for only a few minutes at a time. That’s why I need a smartphone, so I can communicate by voice or text from remote areas with clients whenever and wherever they need me.

The last sentence was the beginning of my proposal. The stuff before it, which made for nice memories, was for my scrapbook. Those 144 words before the last sentence took me just three minutes to write, but it got me going.