Saturday, April 6, 2013

Writing Tip: Clustering, Bob Nicols
"Just as many natural forms come in clusters--grapes, lilacs, spider eggs, cherries--so thoughts and images, when given free rein, seem to come in clusters of associations."--Gabriele Lusser Rico

I'm a believer in clustering--the writing kind that is, though I do like grapes, lilacs and cherries, too (spider eggs, not so much).  Surprising insights have popped for me when I've played around with the technique.

Gabriele Lussen Rico describes clustering in Writing the Natural Way, Using Right-Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers. "Nature," she writes, "operates by profusion. Think of the nearly infinite numbers of seeds that fall to earth, only a fraction of which take root to become trees; of those five thousand or so drones that exist solely to ensure the fertilization of one queen bee...Similarly, human beings engaged in the creative process explore an astronomical number of possible patterns before settling on an idea.

"Clustering is the master key to natural writing. It is the crucial first step for bypassing our logical, orderly Sign-mind (Rico uses this term for left brain thinking, Design-mind for right) consciousness to touch the mental life of daydream, random thought, remembered incident, image, or sensation."

In clustering, "a nucleus word or short phrase acts as the stimulus for recording all the associations that spring to mind in a very brief period of time." After setting forth that nucleus word, the writer is encouraged to "simply let go and begin to flow with any current of connections" that come to mind, writing them down rapidly, "each in its own circle radiating outward from the center in any direction." Connect each new word with a line to the preceding circle. When something new and different strikes you, begin again at the central nucleus.

Exploration. Patterns. Associations. Connections. The stuff that writers are made of!

In my case, I needed to play this past week after feeling ideas were stalling and drying up. I turned back to clustering to see if I could prove Rico right when she states, "the initial anxiety will soon disappear, and in its place will be a certain playfulness."

The results? Insights into a blocked character sketch. Better visualization of a picture book idea. Playtime to see where an idea for a short inspirational piece might go. I was so excited at the results that I shared the developments with my writer's group when we met the other day.

Yep, I'm a believer in clustering. Are you? What techniques do you use to replace writing anxiety with a sense of play?

In case you'd care to read more on the subject of clustering, you might want to check out:
Gabriele Rico
Writer's Web
Meade Communications Clustering


  1. When I took Holly Lisle's online course, How to Think Sideways," she was big on clustering, but I have to admit that I "don't get" it. It feels so foreign to the way I process my thoughts that it's always felt useless to me. When I'm stuck, I just don't think about it. I go do something else, such as scrapbooking, which engages my brain in a different way--thinking about color or pattern choices, layout choices, whatever. And when I return to my writing, I generally have a solution to the blockage.

  2. Cathy, I think it's so neat that there's such a variety in how writers approach their craft. It certainly isn't one-size-fits-all. For me, I believe the exercise has proved helpful to pull out connections and links that I wouldn't have imagined otherwise. But your scrapbooking is a prime example of engaging the brain and finding connections in other creative ways. Thanks so much for sharing :-)

  3. I'm with Cathy. If I get stuck, I do one of three things: 1) leave the computer to do something else entirely - frequently reading, which I love to do and need to do anyway; 2) Play a game on my computer - doesn't take long, and often acts like a "reset" button for my brain; or 3) Write something else. I've usually got at least a couple of projects going - and there's always the dreaded query letter. :)

  4. When I teach beginning writing techniques to kids, clustering is the place I start. It's something they...get. And it's certainly not a writing 'trick' to ever take lightly. It WORKS!

  5. Peggy, as far as getting away from writing for awhile to "reset" the brain button, nothing beats a three-mile walk for me!

    And Barbara, thanks so much for sharing your experience. I guess clustering isn't for everyone, but I agree with you--it works for me, too! I had to give it some time, but when I got results I was so excited. It was like something unlocked in my head. And to think you're teaching clustering to kids. Fantastic!

  6. I like clustering, and I need to do it more often. So glad you brought it up! I agree with Barbara; it's a great tool to use with kids. Love the photo of the grapes. It goes perfectly! :)

  7. I read Writing the Natural Way a few years ago, and I loved it. Using Rico's process, I got a whole notebook full of poems I liked and have worked on since then. I haven't tried clustering for a long time, and I've never tried it with my fiction. But now you've inspired me with this post. Thanks.

  8. I went to a writing get together where they had us do this and it was so cool. :) They did call it something else though, can't remember what it was called, but I need to use it again.