I recently made the potentially premature announcement that I am currently writing a book. To repeat: I'm writing a book. I have not yet fully written a book. It's a process, ya dig? And as promised, I want to start sharing that process with you via this blog and my email list.
So how is this whole book-writing thing going?
It's going! Thanks for asking! I took this week to get into some nitty gritty brainstorming stuff. For the record, brainstorming is easily my favorite part of the creative process, which unfortunately means I have to be careful not to camp out in this stage for too long. I mean, can you blame me? It's just so fun to take myself on artist dates, color code my ideas on sticky notes, and collect insightful yet inscrutable phrases on the Notes app on my iPhone (by the way, any idea what the phrase "brain flavor" means? Me either, but I woke up out of a dead sleep to write it down this week).
There's one brainstorming practice that I especially look to whenever I really want to get serious about developing my ideas: mind mapping.
Remember mind mapping, guys? Perhaps it's not a part of every state's typical language arts curriculum, but the first time I heard about it was in my 7th grade English class (also, for the record, I tend to believe that everything that is worth learning in life was learned in my 7th grade English class). If you're unfamiliar with the concept of mind mapping, here are some logical questions you might have:
Uhhh...what is it?
Mind mapping is an ideation practice that involves expanding one general concept into specific parts, following the idea until it reaches new, interesting conclusions. Essentially, a mind map is intended to be exactly what its name implies: a map of the creative mind. It was developed in the 1970s by cognitive expert, Tony Buzan, and it was popularized by free-thinking ladies in caftans who love kombucha, barefootedness, and living in the mountains. In other words, I'd say it's kind of a hippy-dippy practice, but then again, hippies know what's up (see: peace, love, flower crowns, and dancing naked in the woods). Plus, as far as I'm concerned, all good creative practices involve equal parts freedom & cheesiness.
How do you make a mind map?
First off, you lock yourself in an air-pressurized cabin (Just kidding. Your living room or a bus or a Wendy's is fine. You can mind map anywhere!). Start out by drawing a main idea in the center of a page. Draw a circle (or a box, or a diamond, or a pear-shaped lady -- whatever floats your imaginative boat) and begin branching out into different subtopics related to that idea, creating a spider-like, sunshine-ish shape. From there, continue breaking down each subtopic into even more specific points, branching out into infinity until your brain can no longer make anymore connections and you essentially pass out from creative exhaustion. Voila! You just mind mapped.
But you know what? A picture's worth a thousand words. Here's the mind map I created this week for my book (note that my central idea is "The Book" because at the time that I made this, that was pretty much all I knew about this project: it would be a book).
(Pssst don't worry if this map doesn't make sense to you. It makes sense to me.)
Why does mind mapping work?
You know how your brain is just essentially a big ol' ball of wires?
Or at least that's what it feels like. One moment you have a brilliant thought for a TV series you would like to write which makes you think of the fact that you need to call your cable company which makes you think about how stressed you've been lately which makes you think you should find a therapist which makes you think about Freud which makes you think about food (it's also a one-syllable f-word) which makes you think about how good prosciutto is which makes you think about your sodium intake which makes you think about Jillian Michaels which makes you think about TV, but oh wait, what was that idea you had for a TV series? You can't remember because, again, your thought process is all wrapped up in that giant mass of brain wires.
Well, mind mapping helps you uncoil those wires. By mapping out your thoughts, you start to make sense of those random neurons firing in your brain. Instead of feeling like your thoughts are a jumbled mess, you start to realize that they may actually not be so random at all. In fact, you find that your brain is doing something pretty spectacular: it's making connections.
Unlikely and interesting connections are the foundation of the creative process. (tweet that!) And here's the good news: our brains are naturally hardwired to make them.
But as we all know, these connections can often get lost in our regular mental process. The human brain is pretty overzealous when it comes to inventing things, and that unfortunately means that your awesome creative ideas can easily get crowded. The mind mapping process, however, allows you to visualize these connections so that you can keep track of them in a way that makes sense. It's a process that encourages you to feel comfortable with the fact that you can totally have multiple ideas all at once. But it also helps you to stretch mental muscles that you ordinarily wouldn't by keeping you focused on the ideas at hand.
Are there any rules to mind mapping?
Nah, man. No rules. Rules are for fools, amirighttttt?
Well, actually, there are a few rules to mind mapping. Sorry. Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind mapping, has some rules you can read about right here, but if I'm being honest, I think even these are a little bit too restrictive (sorry, Tony). So instead I made up a few of my own:
1) Don't filter your weirdness.
As you expand on an idea, you'll likely start making connections that feel unusual in nature, maybe even weird. Now, historically, when humans encounter things that they perceive to be weird, they often run after them with torches and pitchforks because, well, humans can be pretty awful sometimes.
But look: don't do that with your ideas. If you are mind mapping and you realize that you have a bizarre thought, don't chase it away like it's a beast living in a castle in the French countryside. Don't opt out of writing it down for fear that it doesn't make sense or that it will seem stupid to someone else. Instead, write it down and do the radical thing of following it. Who knows where it might lead?
2) Be all artsy.
There are some fuggin gorgeous mind maps in this world, you guys. I mean, just look at this one. Or frickin this one. If color and shapes and doodling are your jam, then don't you dare hold back when it comes to mapping your mind. These are the practices that ignite your creativity, so why not embrace them?
3) Or don't be all artsy.
Or, you know, you could be like me. I'm not much of a visual artist, honestly, and the very thought of trying to make my mind map look presentable or pretty gives me neck hives. Personally, I just try to go as fast as I can so that I'm not tempted to censor my thoughts. It works for me.
4) Make sure to marvel at the human brain, specifically your human brain.
I can say with full certainty that I've never created a mind map without discovering a new, unique solution to a creative problem. Never. Even when I'm at my most stuck, there is something about the process of mind mapping that feels a bit magical in nature. Of course, it has nothing to do with the map itself, but rather the system of developing it exposes something we often fail to remember: the human brain is pretty goddamn cool.
Specifically, your human brain is pretty goddamn cool. When you've finished making your mind map, take a step back from it and examine it. All those lines, all of those ideas, all of those connections -- it all came from your brain. The good, the bad, and the weird -- all of it came from you.
5) Find the nuggets.
You know how people say there are no bad ideas in brainstorming? Well, that is insane. There are tons of bad ideas in brainstorming. Like, oh my god, TONS. In fact, as you create your mind map, it's possible that you will encounter more garbage ideas than good ones. And that's okay. Instead of trying to find artistic meaning in every thought you write down, simply look for the nuggets. That's what creative practices are all about: sorting out the nuggets of creative gold from the crap pile of creative waste.
That said, figure out which part of your map you spent the most time on, the part that gave you the most excitement. Find the words or images that make you smile or furrow your brow with intrigue. These, my friends, are your nuggets. And nuggets become projects. And projects are fulfilling. And fulfillment is a basic human need.
Ready to try your hand at mind mapping a creative project? I've created a free printable starter map with suggestions for how to get the ball rolling.