Cluster Mapping (aka Mind Mapping)

I'm seated at home at my laptop, glass of red poured after a mistily invigorating stroll in the evening's edge.  I will blurt out some notes from cluster map exercise for your leisurely perusal, mind map and color pens sprawled out in front of you, beverage of choice preferably near at hand...

  • Begin with a clear slate, a relaxed mind and body.  We all know the pressures of grad school.  Be disciplined enough to treat yourself with a loving hour of self-care and kindness to renew and reinvigorate yourself before embarking on your writing journey.  Know when to take breaks.  Realize that pushing through while stressed out is seldom as efficient OR effective in helping you work your piece of writing to satisfying conclusion.  There is a Zen-like core of oneness that you can cultivate that is especially helpful in writing about complex ideas.  When the mind/body/soul is a tangle, so too will your writing surely follow!
  • Write with a purpose.  Knowing your words can change the world, write with a conscious attention to sharing your efforts with a larger community.  Knowing your audience and caring about their needs, can help you better clarify and focus your efforts.  Attention to audience and purpose can help you decide what to include or leave out, and can inspire you to move through the inevitable writing mire of crafting complex pieces.
  • Choose a singularly compelling title.  Think of the title as the spinal column of a body.  A fully articulated skeleton is one with all the bones connected to each other.  A fully articulated piece emerges in relation to your titular backbone.  While the title may change as you do you mapping, outlining, writing or editing, it is worth taking the time up front to craft a title that captures both your imagination and the breadth of the piece you intend to write.  If you are not compelled by your title yourself, neither will your reader.  You want them to read further, and a good one will help the piece write itself.  If each section, paragraph and sentence does not trace its way back to that spinal title, then you have the indication either that those elements do not belong in this piece, or your title does not encompass enough.
  • When ready for mind/cluster mapping, start with your title boldly in the middle of the page.
  • This is not the time to edit:  This process is a form of brainstorming - let it all pour!  Start with a circle of big ideas or thematic sections.  Don't discard any idea as too off the map - those could lead to your most original passages.  
  • When the big idea stream runs dry, move to one of your ideas/themes and elaborate.  What other ideas does this one stimulate?  What are characteristics of that topic/theme/place?  Let these elaborations cluster around each of your initial entries.  When you get stuck, more to another.  If you repeat yourself, don't worry: this is evidence of interconnection.
  • When you tire of letting your ideological stream flow out on the paper, pause and take a step back (take a walk if you need to, brew a cup of tea, read the funnies).  In writing, as with ecology-ecotones and systems theory, some of the richest diversity occurs at the overlap between ideas/themes/topics (plant and animal communities, cultures, relationships, etc.)  You will want to have a fresh mind and eyes to detect the emergent properties of the whole-that-is-always-more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts.  Start drawing lines between contrapuntal themes/ideas.  Do other ideas emerge as you hold two seemingly disparate themes in conjunction with one another?  Does a story or vignette arise that captures elegantly the rich and provocative tangle of ideas threading back and forth with each other?
  • Be disciplined enough to keep taking the step back to refresh your perspective.  By now you should have a crosshatching of ideas/themes in various colors with a lunatic spiders weaving of lines tangling every which way around the page.  Where are the tangles most dense?  That might point you towards your most compelling themes.  Where is there a lot of white space around an idea?  Maybe that is something you can leave out.  Look for the 3, 4 , 5 or more most richly textured clusters.  The length and depth of your project will determine how many.  When I'm working on a manuscript my emergent clusters become chapters.  For a shorter piece, these will be your section headings or thematic "limbs" on the literary skeleton.
  •  Have you been tracking stories, sites, vignettes, citations as you've mind mapped?  If not, take the time to do so now, looking for ones that illustrate clearly, cleanly and simply your various cluster points.  Highlight these in a different color.  These stories often constitute the most elemental way you can convey your complex ideas: an evocative or particularly captivating story is oft worth much more than a thousand pages of explanation.  Illustration is 'explication.' taking your implicit ideas/philosophy/argument/etc. and making it explicit and easily understood by others.  Similarly, at times of handful of provocative questions can offer your reader more insight (and engage them more deeply) than reams of pre-digested answers.  One way to write about complex ideas is to frame your piece with a series of engaging questions.
  • Revisit your title.  Does it still compel you?  Does it encompass and resonate with each of the idea/thematic clusters?  Make sure your cluster-mapped 'body' of potential writing is fully articulated around its thematic core.
  • With title, thematic clusters, and illustrative stories/citations/etc. in hand, you are ready to move to the outline phase.  This need not be done in a traditional format, though that may be helpful to some of you.  What you are looking for is a logical and compelling flow, an ordering of your sub-themes and illustrative story that engages your reader initially, informs them with an invigorating journey through your topics/themes, and leaves them eager to reframe their own orientation to include what you have offered them.  What I will do with my mind map is number clusters sequentially and draw the path between ordered themes/topics/stories (in a new color).  Pay close attention to the lines between cluster points.  These will be the transitions in your piece of writing, and require a special attention.  I sometimes jot down transitional ideas/phrases/stories in my inter-lines as these will guide the writing of those all-important transitional passages.
  • On to the writing.  To each their own style.  I often start with my illustrative stories, as those will often do the bulk of the explanation.   There are times when I follow the outline, other times when I'm literally (and figuratively) all over the map.  Some days I ask myself to write what's easiest.  Other days I take on what seems hardest.  I'll write front-to-back, both sides against the middle, and here there and everywhere, not unlike a painter working a canvas.  Like a painter or sculptor, you will need to decide when done is done.  At times it is important to leave some areas roughened and others more finely textured.  Have a sense of what you want your reader to feel when they rub their minds over the surface and into the depths of your piece.  Write to that desired texture and be as wary of too much polish as too little.  There are countless writers with countless words of wisdom about how to write.  I will leave you with the enjoinder to trust your self, your voice, and to respect the intelligence of your readers.  To write is to a form of conducting relationship.  Bring all your ethical wisdom to bear on that relationship and your writing will often take care of itself.

That's all for now; wine glass empty, stream of consciousness run dry.