I’ve long had good luck dividing writing into distinct stages and forcing them not to mingle: first there is the brainstorm stage (usually takes place on hikes or in the shower, but occasionally in the middle of the night when I wake to feed the baby). Second there is the compost stage: this one is the most fun. I give myself writing prompt after writing prompt, doing a few each day, and usually after a few months I’ve generated a whole compost-pile (aka Microsoft word document) of junk on my project. Later there will be the color-coding, starting a new document, organizing the writing by theme and order, and moving it all around – but between the free-writing and the shaping of it, there is a vital stage: the Venn diagram stage. Venn Diagrams are great when I’ve written so much compost that I no longer know what my story is about. So I must step back, read aloud what I’ve written, and then use some math.
Venn diagrams. Remember those? They look like Olympic circles overlapping. They’re an old math trick, and they’re my favorite way to discern a theme in a piece of writing. Here’s what they look like:
After reading through your compost, ask yourself: “what is this story about?” Then pick the top three topics and write each one in one of the circles of your Venn Diagram. It is what these topics have to say to each other—with YOU as the person saying it—that determines a story’s theme.
Venn Diagrams have saved me many times, most notably when I was trying hard to complete a story called “Awake with Asashoryu”. I had written it about my dad, a sensible-seeming lawyer by day who at night, nearly every night, stays awake to watch the Japanese sumo tournaments. I had all sorts of questions, and my “Awake with Asashoryu” compost had become a swamp of pages about sumo, discipline, passion for life, and the father-and-daughter-relationship. But after Venn diagramming, I was able to start shaping the story. It was about sumo – and the father-daughter relationship – and passion, or what is worth staying awake for. And once I knew this, the story was easy to figure out. It was published in a great literary magazine called bosque and remains once of my favorite personal essays I’ve written. All because of Venn Diagrams.
Next time you lose your way in a story, try Venn Diagrams. And let me know how it works.
This blog post is adapted from Workshop #5 of The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers.
Elisabeth Sharp McKetta is passionate about teaching writing. She teaches for Harvard Extension School, runs a blog called Poetry for Strangers, and has written two books. Her newest book The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers was born out of her experience as a writing teacher and her desire to make creativity part of everyone’s day.
Most writers struggle with three things: how to get started, how to improve, and what to do with a finished piece of writing. The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers is a fun, concise guidebook that illuminates a path for all three. Each workshop contains three parts: process, prompt, and venue. Used together, these techniques provide the scaffolding for a sustainable, fulfilling writing life.