Brainstorming! What a fantastic word! It’s too bad, really, that until recently I secretly loathed the word because it conjured up dreadful images of class-wide brainstorming, usually while the teacher (or a volunteer with scrabbly handwriting) stood at the front of the class by the easel with the enormous notepad, and the chunky smelly marker in hand to write down the things the kids brainstormed. (In my own rememberings, I never raised my hand. But I do recall someone telling me I was always the one who rescued the class whenever our prolonged silence was about to get us an extra writing assignment. I think that’s called laziness?)
But brainstorming is probably the high point of the creative process. You can’t be wrong when brainstorming, only misinformed, and because it’s just notes no one else will ever see it doesn’t matter if on one page your main character’s friend is a short girl named Susan and on the next she plays basketball and goes by Nina.
I don’t really have a brainstorming process. This time around I think it’s going to be a lot of pre-writing, character sketches that will go on and on and on further still. I’m one of those people who has to write — legit sentences and paragraphs and maybe even dialogue — in order to figure out what’s going on. Note-taking will only get me so far. I’ll write whole scenes of backstory, and it’s absolutely the freest kind of writing there is because it doesn’t matter. The pressure is off. You can fail the greatest fail there ever was, write it’s when you mean its, load on the cliches, allow character inconsistencies, leave XXX where a character still needs a name, write about stuff without doing research first, unload the verbal equivalent of dung on the page, and who cares? No one. Brainstorming is the part where nothing matters and everything is exciting and fantastic, and there isn’t anything on the page to make you insecure yet. It’s all fluid and ready to change.
And it should be self-indulgent. It should be messy and thrilling and maybe a little desperate. It should be secretive, hoarded like a dirty habit. It should go around the bend, as far as you can make it go, into as strange and mystifying territory as you can find (or, rather, create, but it feels so much like finding, doesn’t it?). Every new character should be a wild departure from the one who came before, and each new setting should turn the whole imaginary world on its head. Even outside the realm of scifi and fantasy there is room for newness, and its the specificity and uniqueness of your settings and characters that people will remember, not the generics of modern life. And really, why bother with different characters and settings if they’re all going to be pale imitations of each other? No matter what you’re writing there’s something unexpected and startling around the corner, and why not try to find it?
Not everything you come up with is going to stick. That isn’t the point. Most of it, I’m afraid to say, will be shit, especially when you try to turn a scribbled note into a real, workable story element. But that’s not the point either. The point is, if you let loose now and turn all of your creative energies (good and bad) fly you’ll turn up something worth saving, something refreshing and new. Something you might not have found if you’d only done your brainstorming timidly, as if someone was watching over your shoulder.
All of this is right there in the word brainstorming. As Irene showed us this past week, storms are messy. That was in a bad way, of course, but still: Storms are messy. Brainstorming is messy. Let it all fly — you might be surprised what you find when you finally stop to start picking up the pieces, and fit them together to form a working story.