I had a discussion this morning with some students about ideas and writing. We were using some brainstorming techniques to get ideas flowing, and one of those techniques is called daisy chaining, though I’ve also heard it referred to as clustering or branching. The point is, you begin with a single word, and using free association, you allow that word to lead you to ideas and concepts that you jot down, connecting each related idea through lines and circles to form a chain.
I’ve used this method quite extensively myself, and I’ve taught it to many students over the years. It’s very effective, and also very simple.
We used the technique in class, and then used the ideas to generate a paragraph in class today. After class a student asked me if I did this exercise for all my writing. I had to admit that, no, not every project starts this way, at least, not in the literal sense of doing the activity. But I have to qualify my response and say that, yes, almost all my writing begins with a word.
Sometimes a book emerges from just a single word. That one word may encompass a very complex concept, but it is just the one word that sets things in motion. Take for example the word “commitment” which in-and-of itself doesn’t say a lot. Conceptually, however, the word is loaded. It has a denotation of dedication, of giving one’s word and following through. It has the connotation of the opposite, of those people we know can’t make a commitment and stick with it.
How about the word “blue” as an example. To some, it immediately conjures the idea of sky, or water, or some other aspect of nature; for others, depression and sorrow hide in those four letters. The novel that I wrote which comes out next spring came from this exact conflict in the interpretation of one word. The Deepest Blue deals with the ocean, and the love that two people have have the deepest waters of the sea. But it deals with grief and loss as well, and how interconnected the two variations of the word can become.
Words encompass emotional meaning as well as literal meaning. Not many of us who have experienced it can see the word “divorce” and not experience an emotional reaction of some sort. Likewise the word “marriage” or the word “relationship”. “Death” is a loaded word, too. For some, it summons heartbreak and for others, fear. Of course, the same could be said of those two previous words.
A single word can also bring with it a host of images. I think the word “chicken” is one of the funniest words in English. I happen to think chickens are sort of funny birds, but there is also something about the word itself that is amusing to me. I can’t explain it. I think the word “bologna” is funny, too. So are “blubber” and “flatulence” and “narcolepsy” even though I don’t find their literal meanings to be that humorous.
The word “velvet” feels as sensual to me as the fabric, but oddly enough, the words “plethora” and “cumbersome” do also. The word “capricious” represents exactly its meaning to me, but the word “sincere” always brings to mind for me the people I know who are not.
A word is rarely just a word. The word “independence” takes on a significantly different meaning depending on your circumstances. To a 17-year-old looking at high school graduation, there is that almost palpable flavor to the word. But to the 84-year-old man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it is a stinging reminder of his advancing age.
Understanding the power of each word is a requirement to good writing. We begin with a word, and from there we stretch out into the abyss, looking for connections to others and to ourselves. The wrong word, the wrong interpretation of a word, can sever a connection and leaves us floundering in the dark waters, alone and isolated. As a writer, my purpose as I see it is to strengthen connections, to use words to help build understanding and appreciation. Words are, indeed, the most powerful tools for achieving that, but they can also be destructive. It may seem a statement of the obvious, but it is worth making the statement none the less: Words need to be handled carefully.