association for writersMuscling Up on the Power of Association
- and a few exercises to go with it...

Robyn Haynes and Marg McAlister

A while back, Robyn Haynes sent me a "think piece" she'd written about the power of association.

It prompted several ideas for activities that writers can use (a) to warm up when creativity seems to have gone missing, or (b) as writing exercises for a critique session.

First, here's Robyn's piece on the power of association. I just love the way she points out the similarities between writing and the playground (especially sliding to the bottom of the playground slide being likened to the 'downs' of writing!)

Muscling Up on the Power of Association

I was on a swing the other day, leaning back with a white knuckled grip on the chains, toes in the clouds. Delirious with the sensation of flying I had a thought. How like writing it was; more precisely, how like the feeling of getting a story idea-the same incredible sense of flying. Up the ladder of the slide I clambered and hit the metal hard, butt first, sliding all the way to the bottom, truly coming down to earth; this was definitely like the writing process! In a flash I was up again and racing my grandson to the parallel bars and, looking up, the idea finally somersaulted into being: I saw the parallels.

Our brains are wonderful things, no less for the power of association, an essential gizmo in the writers' tool box. With this process of association impelled by the force of imagination, a writer can limber up the story idea muscle, that part of the brain that brings into parallel one's memory and one's ability to use metaphor; in other words the power to make associations. Everyone has it but successful writers develop this muscle into impressive proportions - think "storyteller on steroids". It's all in the technique. Where my grandson hears the word 'park' and associates it with fun and the play ground, a creative writer may think 'caravan' and associate it with a writer's tool box-not the usual Rorschach inkblot response. So how to account for the difference?

The difference is the parallels drawn are unusual and unique, startling and unexpected, engrossing and enthralling. It takes practice to develop this way of thinking. Unusual linkages between memories and metaphors, well it's like chalk and chutney. But let me get off the roundabout and say it plain. Writers out there start training! Take your imaginations for a run and build up those muscles of association.

Now, where did I put my grandson?
Robyn Haynes © 2009

Okay: while Robyn is hunting for her grandson, let's play 'associations' for a while. After all, you do have to limber up those creative muscles, don't you?

I have to warn you, though: because this is a guided activity, it's going to be a little more structured than Robyn's experience. Well, it has to be: these are my ideas, and your ideas could be totally different. However, you can follow the same process.

Here's a list of words representing objects that you see around the house. Your job is to apply all of the words on the list to four different categories: Music, Food, Travel and Play. Write down the first associated word or phrase that comes to mind for each one on the list. If nothing at all comes to mind, put a dash.

Pick one or two of the results and expand into a paragraph or a page. See where it leads. (It might not lead anywhere. It might, on the other hand, lead to a whole book.)

Basic List:

bedside clock
computer monitor
salt shaker
wine bottle

Below are the first words in each category that I associate with those on the original list. (If you want to try this for yourself using the same list, stop at this stage and do the exercise first.)

The next step is to see whether any of the things on the list prompt memories or ideas. If they do, run with them and see where they lead.

Association Exercise #2

Go for a walk around the neighbourhood. Try to guess at the type of family that lives in each house. What you are doing here is making associations from what you observe, with what you can create.

For example, if you see a house with children's toys out the front and also a family car with Learner Driver plates on it, what does this tell you about the family that lives here?

Using the power of association, a writer can come up with a host of ideas, depending on mood and the current level of creativity. At the very least, it could be a way of whiling away a few hours in what might be an otherwise unproductive day.

copyright Robyn Haynes and Marg McAlister


The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Character

Book of Checklists

The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

Write a Book Fast