I've met many writers in my day and I never cease to be amazed at how willing they are to share their wealth of knowledge about the craft of writing. Maybe it's because writing is such a solitary task. Most of the time it's just you and your computer or your notebook for hours, sometimes days, at a time. You tap away, hit the delete key, scratch your chin, and tap away some more.
When the task is complete and you finally come up for air, you need to connect with the outside world again. Sharing ideas and techniques with like-minded individuals is a great way to accomplish this.
From time to time, I'll be adding to this page ideas and pointers I've come across and articles I've had published. If you've got something you'd like to share, or you'd like to comment on something you've read here, feel free to contact me at [email protected]. I'd be happy to hear from you.
The Uncluttered Cluster is a writing technique that I use consistently when writing poetry. This article was originally published in The Writers' Journal in January 2003.
The Uncluttered Cluster
(A Hybrid Writing Technique)
by: Debbie Ouellet
I’d like to say that whenever I write poetry, streams of verse flow from my fingertips like the ancient waters of Hippocrene. Occasionally, when my muse is feeling especially generous, they do. More times than not, though, I’m given no more than a single image or line to work with. It wheedles itself into my brain, demanding to be written, expanded, molded into a poem. I rush to the keyboard, fingers poised, eyes on the screen and type the line. And that’s where it stops; one line with miles of blank white space yawning before me.
I’ve tried clustering to get me going. To me, cluster is akin to clutter. My brain has trouble working its way through the tangle of words that end up all over my page. I’ve tried journaling. By the time I got through writing about all the other stuff flitting around my brain, I’d forgotten what I originally wanted to write. The solution to my limited ability to use these writers’ tools came to me when I decided to combine the two into what I call The Uncluttered Cluster.
If you could perch on my shoulder and watch me, you’d wonder how I could possibly use the word ‘uncluttered’ to describe this process. The thoughts, lines, and images that end up on the page are often only mildly connected, with leaps of association. But, that’s okay. Association and mental leaps are the whole point of clustering. The key for me is keeping it in a straight line. Traditional clustering has you draw lines to your central word, showing the association, creating subgroups, and so on. That’s where the clutter comes in. This sort of left brain activity messes up the flow of my right brain muse.
So, I work in a straight line, beginning with my original image or line. Then I start to type, ignoring capitalization, punctuation and spelling. Whatever comes into my mind is fair game. This is not the time to decide if it’s good. Just keep typing. When an idea seems complete, I hit the enter key for a line break. My lines tend to be only a few words long, with the occasional paragraph-like entry.
Sometimes I close my eyes and type. You’d be surprised how liberating that can be. Sure there are typos, but that’s what spell check is for.
So, how is this like journaling? In a perfect world, poetic verse would shoot from your fingertips like electricity flowing through the keys. Yeah, right. In the real world, mortgage worries, frustrations and family troubles knock around inside your head, right next to all that poetic inspiration. So, when the flow of ideas hits the brakes, I let the rest out. It’s not unusual to find comments like, “this sucks” and “I wonder what Mom would say about that?” right in there with lovely descriptive verse. And, yes, there are entries I could never show to Mom.
When I can’t possibly think of another thing to type, I stop. I go back to the beginning and start to read. Any line or word that catches my fancy gets highlighted in bold text. The delete key does not exist in this process. Everything stays.
Using copy and paste, I move the highlighted lines to a new page, everything still in nice straight lines. These are what I’ll work with for my poem. On average, less than half of what I’ve chosen actually gets used in the poem. The entire entry gets saved in my journal folder using the date as the filename. You never know when I may want to use that other half.
If your muse took a vacation, and journaling and clustering don’t seem to help, try this hybrid. The Uncluttered Cluster may be just what you need to kick-start that next poem.
Here’s part of a day’s entry, and the poem that emerged from it.
Re: rainstorm and flood
The creek crept out of its bed this morning,
swallowed a wooden bridge for breakfast,
spread itself like butter over green fields,
drowning daisies, bending cattails.
Waters gossiped with the neighbours,
come to get a better look.
Ripples giggled at the sight they made
standing on the hill,
bathrobe chatting with Sunday best,
like they’d never seen water dance.