It’s weird when you’re in a twitter chat, as I tend to be lately, and in the middle of a discussion, in order to explain what you are trying to say in 120 characters, you invent a concept off the top of your head, and it resonates so well with people that they assume it’s a real thing that you know all about. It might not be as weird if it hadn’t happened to me more than once.
Some weeks ago, I was in the middle of a #createlounge discussion about what I can’t remember, and in talking with some fellow writers got on the subject of writing itself, which tends to happen in a room, digital or otherwise, full of writers. One person mentioned how they always seemed to start a piece of writing with one subject in mind and then, in the process of writing, end up on a completely different subject. This sentiment was echoed by several other writers: some bloggers, some novelists, even a poet. I, too, was familiar with this and, in trying to think of a shorthand to describe it, blurted out “branch writing”.
One of the things I love about the English language is that occasionally you’ll happen upon a combination of words that so perfectly describes a concept it doesn’t require explanation. As it turns out, “branch writing” is just such a combination. Every writer in the group immediately understood it and assumed that it was something that I had written about extensively and not something I thought up on the spot. I really wish I could take the credit, but, in the moment at least, it felt very much like a shot-in-the-dark.
Still, I had to admit, I was onto something.
Inspiration is funny. We characterize it like, well, inspiration, like an idea suddenly occurring to us, and sometimes it does. But I’ve experienced it first hand enough to know that just as often, if not more so, it’s not an idea but a process. Sometimes, yes, ideas, even entire stories, can drop into our laps whole-cloth. It’s amazing when they do, but, sadly, that isn’t always the case. Often we have to work for inspiration, and not just to get it, either, but to make it work.
There are times when what inspiration gives us is not an idea but the seed of one. Sometimes we get ideas that are, quite literally, half-baked. They don’t make sense, or enough sense to do anything with, but if we leave them for a while, let them grow a bit, then coming back to them we realize there is something here we can use. Plant. Wait. Harvest. It’s the cycle of the world.
But sometimes, what inspiration gives is not an idea or a seed but a map. Inspiration wants to lead us to the idea, but, because things can’t be too easy, it often doesn’t tell us what the final destination is.
That’s where branch writing comes in.
More than anything, I am learning that simply starting is the most important thing we can do in any creative endeavor. Not coincidentally, that’s also the hardest thing to do. Starting is everything. You can’t do anything until you start, obviously, but starting is key for another reason.
Where we start is often not where we finish.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to a blog post, story, or journal entry with an idea in my head only to watch it transform, caterpillar-to-butterfly, as I write. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to a blog post, story, or journal entry with absolutely no ideas only to look up an hour later and find I’ve filled the page.
This should make a certain amount of sense, because writing is a form of outward processing. It’s how I think through things. Not that I can’t, or don’t, inside my own head, but the act of writing helps me. And that makes a lot of sense, because I’m using more of my brain.
Even then, though there’s a deeper reason why this is important, why inspiration can’t always give us the idea outright. Sometimes we have to earn it, and that’s not just an issue of effort. We won’t understand it if we don’t have to work for it. If we could pop ourselves to the end of the process, the final destination in the journey our own creative minds are trying to move us towards, we might find the thing we’ve been looking for, but we would have lost some of the meaning by not taking each step to get there.
There are too many examples of this to mention. Just think of every lesson you had to learn in school. Think of driver’s ed. Think of that most clichéd of quotes: “it’s not the destination…”
Coming back to branch writing. The thing to remember, and the thing this is all about, the thing that I see creatives need to hear so often, is that this is normal. You may start a piece of writing with one idea in mind only to end up with another by the end. That’s okay. That’s great. That’s inspiration. That’s your brain working things out.
The worst thing you can do is resist that. This could be its own post, but I’ve found stories will often tell you how they ought to be written. You can oppose it, sure, but I’ve never found that that ends well. Instead, just let it “branch”, in whatever direction it needs to.
If you start with one idea and find yourself writing into another, “branching” off, go with it. See where that takes you. You might find a better idea to write about, or, as often happens with me, you might end up with two posts. You just have to remember to go back and change the beginning. (Editing. Yeah, I know.)
And, yes, sometimes you’ll start something that doesn’t end up being a full post or story or concept. That’s fine. It’s still valuable because it got you to the idea that did turn into something. Not all branches bear fruit, (and I swear I didn’t start with that metaphor, yet here we are, proving my point), but they are stretching towards the light, all a part of the same whole. They are all a part of you, and that means they are worth exploring, if only as steps in the process or links in the chain. And you never know, you might come back and find there’s something there.
The thing is to be open to it. To accept the process as it is not as we would like it to be, and, above all, to give yourself the space and grace to just start and see where it takes you.
Branch writing. It’s a thing.
(Image by Chaitra: http://itspinkpot.com/creative-convex)