Connecting the Dots: Part 1

Clustering as a Way Out of Writer's Block


I grew up on a ranch, miles away from any city illumination that would bleach out the starlight. The Milky Way stretched out like a cloud beyond the local shimmerings of blood-red Mars and his legions. Even as a child, I felt incredibly small.

And lost.

My dad helped. He pointed out patterns in the stars—constellations. Learning to recognize Orion and the Great Bear, and  to connect those pictures with the stories that leant them “a local habitation” helped me organize the galaxy. Simply connecting the dots — learning to recognize patterns in the stars gave me a sense of control. Order (albeit artificial and imposed) displaced an uneasy feeling of chaos. That’s what I found in the constellations — clusters of meaning.

Sometimes when you’re writing, you feel like the ideas are out there, but they are remote, as distant as the stars, and you can’t grasp them. They splay across your imagination scattered, unfocused, and unconnected — an arbitrary spray of thoughts like glitter spilled onto black velvet. You feel confused, frustrated at your inability to lock something down, to discern a pattern in the confusion. That blank page/computer screen is a wall that no battering ram of words can crack. The wall has a name: writer’s block.


Gabrielle Rico offers a solution to writer’s block that I have been using for years. Her approach, contained in her classic Writing the Natural Way, is called clustering.

“A non-linear brainstorming process, clustering makes the Design mind’s interior, invisible associations visible on a page. Clustering becomes a self-organizing process as words and phrases are spilled onto the page around a center. The Sign mind begins to see pattern and meaning, and the writing flows naturally into a vignette.”

The first word (Rico calls it the nucleus) is the ideational big bang that creates a creative event horizon for the galaxy of ideas that will spring from it. As you look at the simple clusters on Rico’s website, consider expanding yours to include snippets from songs, quotes from movies, a half-remembered stanza from a childhood poem. The key to the initial phase of effective clustering is variety — allowing your non-linear “right brain” free rein.

Get ready — the words, the images that will proceed from the nucleus idea refuse to march in tight left-brain ranks. They are not orderly, at least not in a conventional sense. Instead, they erupt from their confining stall like a bucking bronco, untamed, wild. Trust this impulsive burst. Don’t inhibit, don’t bridle, don’t edit.

Just ride, and hold on.

Be forewarned, as you cluster your left-brain logical side is going to resist: “Quit goofing around — you’re wasting time. This is stupid. And dangerous. And it doesn’t make sense!” But that’s to be expected because your right brain is speaking a language that is foreign to your left brain. It’s the language of unbridled creativity.

So, put your left brain in time out. We will invite him back later.

For the moment, it’s time to play.



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