Two related post subjects caught my attention last week and I’m trying to distill them here. The subjects are ideas (coming up with them) and mind-mapping. I began the post, How to find an idea (since abandoned) and also scattered a few comments on a number of blogs providing my own less than profound insight.
The more I trailed these subjects the more clear their relationship was and, despite my initial denials of having a particular process or an ability to mind-map, the more clear it was I did have a process and it was a kind of mind-mapping, albeit a chaotic one.
So this is me trying to distill and explain.
I don’t find ideas, they find me. I don’t recall ever having consciously made an effort to find an idea. I have certainly been flat broke as far as ideas went and I’ve stared at either blank paper or a blank screen. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone out looking for an idea. It’s not because I have a rule about that or some distaste for it. It just never occurred to me.
To say, “I don’t find ideas, they find me,” is a cutesy little sentence and many people may have a vague sense for the accuracy of it, but it really doesn’t say anything. As with many clever sentences, it’s all style, little or no substance. So here is the substantive part that is missing. In a comment on Remarkablogger I wrote:
I think coming up with ideas has a good deal to do with state of mind, probably related to brain wave activity, and “getting away from my computer” is really about a mental reset.
I come up with ideas by walking the dog or buying groceries. Every so often I’ll write an idea down to work on later but the reality is that I rarely go back [to] it. I appear to be reactive to my environment so I’ll start scribbling about something that has been sparked by what I’ve seen online or in the news. Just as often, however, for reasons I can’t fathom, I’ll find myself thinking about something that apparently hasn’t been sparked by anything — at least not that I’m aware of.
This is why I say “ideas find me.” In some sense, it is a quest for ideas since when I do something like walk the dog it will be partly because I want a mental reset so an idea might find me. (Mind you, it’s largely because the dog is threatening to destroy the house.)
Something I did not say in the quoted comment was this: in almost every case I do not know what I really think until I have written it out. It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another to have something to say.
Mind-mapping and process
This is where I get to the business of mind-mapping and process, process really being what mind-mapping is about. I had stated in another comment that I didn’t use mind-mapping, that whenever I tried it I failed. But as I kept thinking about it, I realized that was not true. I started thinking about process and then understood that is what is at the heart of mind-mapping. Strictly speaking, mind maps are graphical but in their essence they are about taking notes. (And notes themselves, in a way, can be considered graphical even though they are text, the traditional note taking method.)
I had confused technology (mind-mapping programs) and visual depictions like graphs, flow charts and coloured balloons with mind-mapping. They are simply tools people use. They aren’t, however, necessary to mind-mapping because mind-mapping is about process and clarity.
When I understood that, I understood that I had a process that brought me clarity. I mind-mapped without knowing it. My process is a ramshackle, chaotic amalgam of today and yesterday, technology and old school.
Often a post begins physically in a notebook with inked scribbles. Later, I transcribe it either in a Word doc or within WordPress as a draft and continue writing. Later, I print it (back to the tactile). Printed, I read it and with pen or pencil start changing it: rewriting this, cutting that, moving this thing over there. There are arrows up and arrows down, ballooned comments in the margins. I see something is missing and, turning the paper over to the blank side, I begin scribbling again.
And then I take it back to my laptop, make my corrections and transcribe what I’ve scribbled. As the process goes back and forth, the paper side fades away and it is all done on the laptop.
As tedious as all this may seem it has an element that, for me, recommends it: it works.
For me it works though not necessarily for anyone else. I’m not usually the sort of person who can just sit down and pour out words that make a coherent post without any of that back and forth. It certainly doesn’t happen for something of any length. As an example of what I do and how and why it works, as I type this on my laptop I’m preparing to print it, sit down with it and a pen, read it over and orient myself as well as make some changes.
The word orient is key. Once I’m in the flow of writing I can go off on a related tangent. I need to go back and see what it was I wanted to say and if I’ve said it or if I’ve missed something or if I’ve inserted something unrelated to it. In other words, it helps answer the question, “What the hell have I been writing about?”
I’m finished going through that process described above and, surprisingly, I think I’ve managed to maintain some coherence and say what I wanted to. However, I also discovered that, at the heart of all this, I think I really just wanted to state how it is I work. I’m sure other people work the same way. Let me add that while it seems tiresome and time-consuming and certainly not how everyone will work, it has the virtue of ebb and flow, back and forth. It is like a conversation with myself at the end of which I not only say what I want I also know what it is I really think.
If I may toss in one last thing on the subject of ideas, one aspect that really engages me and helps to define and inform an idea (for me) is a bit of online researching, sometimes of a simple word – like “idea.” You may have a topic, you may even know what you think you want to say, but a bit of online window-shopping of articles and blog posts can highlight aspects and details that may have escaped you. It may also show you what line of thought others are taking and that may be something you want to address, pro or con, or it may put the topic in a light you hadn’t seen it before.
In other words, it turns it into a conversation.
We sometimes think “conversation” in this context is about comments and tweets after we’ve posted. This is true, but the post itself is a product of conversation – one with ourselves as well as with the posts, articles and comments we’ve found online prior to writing it.
This lengthy ramble was prompted by posts on several blogs, including: