Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Free Association

January 12th, 2009 by


You’re stuck on a scene. You’ve tried to write it 10 different ways, but nothing seems to work. Hell, it’s possible that the more you’ve been at it, the worse the writing seems. There are a lot of things you can do: go for a jog, take a drive, or the always reliable nap. But you’re in a particularly Protestant work ethic mood and since those choices involve getting away from the writing, even though you know that may be precisely what you should do, you stubbornly refuse to drag your butt out of your chair.

What to do? How about free association? First, open the Word file you created for brainstorming. [You haven't done that like I suggested? Well, get thee hither and do it!] Next set your fingers on the keyboard. Then — and this is really important — close your eyes. That’s right — type blind.

Type every word, image or thought that flits through your mind. Don’t worry about spelling or getting down all your ideas, just do a direct download from your brain to your fingertips. If your mind goes into elements re the problem scene, fine, but don’t force your thoughts there; rather your job is to follow the flow of free association. Type. Keep typing. And keep on typing.

What happens? In my experience, oftentimes I’ll hit on a nugget. Perhaps something related to the scene, perhaps not, maybe something later in the story, or an idea for something else entirely. Generally when that happens, I end my free association session. Other times, nothing seems to emerge, so I just stop.

Now when you open your eyes, you have a choice. The obvious one is to look at what you’ve typed. Maybe a line of dialogue there. A good visual. Perhaps you mistyped something, but that misspelling causes you to think of something that can help you.

There’s another choice: Print out what you’ve typed, fold it, stick it in an envelope, and seal it without looking at it. In one of a series of lectures writer David Milch gave some years back at the WGA Theater, he recommended this strategy. It struck as some kind of weird voodoo shaman shit, but a few months later, I actually tried it — three days running to start my writing sessions. I’m not sure what Milch’s intent was — probably just to get the writer away from prejudging what they’ve written — but I will say that (A) I looked forward to doing it, which helped to get me to my writing sooner, (B) I did generate some ancillary ideas which I recorded in another Word brainstorming file, and (C) it rattled my cage and made the next several days a fresher, more fun experience.

Whatever you do or however you do it, the point is to let your mind roam and see what emerges. Could be nothing. Or could be the key to unlock your problem scene.

This has been another edition of “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.”

11 thoughts on “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Free Association

  1. Joshua James says:

    I do this sometimes but with handwriting on a sketch pad, like I’ll just start doodling and see where it goes … I haven’t done it in awhile, but you reminded me and now I may jump back to it.

  2. Scott says:

    Joshua, do you remember that scene in Amadeus where Mozart is hunched over a billiards table, writing a musical score with one hand, then without looking, flicking a pool ball, so that it caroms off several walls, comes right back to him, he nabs it — again without looking — then does it all again… and again… and again. That’s the scene, just that. And it’s a great visual that has some hard science behind it, where we can do something to distract our — choose your descriptor — rational / left-brain / editor so the spontaneous / right-brain / brainstorm can download directly.

    I’ve also read where Mozart would often have his wife read aloud to him while he composed, again giving him something to engage his
    ‘editor’ and get at his ‘raw creativity’ directly.

    Your doodling might be something like that…

  3. Joshua James says:

    ah, that scene, right!

    I also have a couple knickknacks that I toss in my hand when I’m sitting at the laptop trying to write … I have a tiny minature Buddha that I pick up and rub, usually without thinking about it.

    Heh. Who knew? But dang, if Milch does it, you can sign me up!

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