Posted on Aug 31, 2015 in Non-fiction

by Gabriele Rico
Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Putnam, 2000

Many of you may have already read this title. Writing partner and friend Peg resurrected a copy in her home library from the early nineties. My copy is the 15th anniversary edition. Comparing mine with Peg’s I’d say it is worth buying even if you have the first one. For one thing she includes pieces written by Joan Baez who took a workshop with Rico in those intervening years. And she has added three new chapters: one on Voice, one on Improvisation(Re-Creations) and one on Brevity.

This is one of those books whose title keeps popping up in all the other books you are reading on writing process. You notice it, but you don’t rush right out and buy it. I read about Rico and “clustering” two or three years ago in Pat Schneider’s book, Writing Alone and with Others, and since have seen it mentioned in Janet Burroway’s books Writing Fiction and Imaginative Writing.

Even if other authors don’t give the credit to Rico, any time you see the process of circling a word and then spinning off other words or phrases in other circles that relate to the first word — she’s the source. Clustering was Rico’s Stanford University doctrinal dissertation, born of research into how the brain learns.

Rico sites the way clustering can unlock our “Design” mind (or Right Brain as others refer to it) in order that it might inform our “Sign” mind (Left Brain). Lists can sometimes serve the same purpose — letting subjects come rapidly to mind. But I’m finding that clustering, drawing circles around the thoughts as they come to mind allows me, as Burroway suggests, “to create before you criticize, to do the essential play before the essential work.”

Pat Schneider says that people in her writing groups either find clustering enormously helpful or frustrating and hindering. I’m one of the former. Working my way through Writing the Natural Way was fun! And there were infinite ways in which you could use this method for writing prompts.

For example, you can start with one word, such as “maybe” or “never” and let ideas or images spin off from them. You can start with an object or a phrase or a preposition. Or you can inverse the process. Read a poem or short essay and have people jot down words that strike them. No reason needed. They like the sound, or it reminds them of something. When you have finished reading, they look at the words and see what one word or phrase comes to mind. That then goes into the center circle and the clustering begins.

Rico’s subtitles read: Release Creative Inhibition/ End Writer’s Block/ Find an Authentic voice/ Discover Patterns of Meaning. She provides good resources and suggestions for all of that. Follow her step by step through the book and there is every likelihood that you will have found a very natural and freeing way to write.

An added bonus I found, were the quotes she sprinkles in the margins. Here are a couple of my favorites. Look for others in the coming months under come write with me, Writing Encouragement.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.” — Joan Didion

“When we were little we had no difficulty sounding the way we felt; thus most little children speak and write with real voice.” — Peter Elbow

I would not want to always use the clustering process. But now and then, or perhaps once in every writing session I offer, clustering is a good way to break out and play!