Have you ever had the burning desire to tell a story, but just couldn’t find the right words? Yes, too many of us remain with stories locked inside because we just don’t know where to start. We sit in the wee hours of the morning staring at a blinking cursor, or at night with our hands hovering tentatively over the page – and nothing comes.
As a writer and teacher of writing, I often suggest that my students use semantic mapping.
Semantic mapping is a way to creatively and graphically represent concepts and ideas. The map, when complete, will be a visual representation of the thematic and schematic relations that compose an idea. For example, you may be tasked to write about adaptation. What a broad topic to write about! How on earth do you get all your thoughts down on the page coherently, let alone convey personal connection and voice?
Let me show you how semantic mapping works:
Here’s a map that I completed from the word “adaptation”. You will notice that I had three distinct streams of thought while I mapped:
Guided by the movement of my hand on the page, I let my mind make unrestricted connections. Thinking of Darwin, I was led to the thought of evolution and the understanding that the larger or stronger organism does not always outlive the lesser. This then made me think one of the smallest organisms: spiders. Spiders came to me as I had recently read articles about entire Australian and Pakistani towns invaded by spiders and covered in webs (more on that here: http://bit.ly/1twAQwj). These reports reminded me of the fact that humans – although more intelligent and imposing than most in the animal kingdom – could be overrun or inconvenienced by quite minute creatures. Then my mind went to the tiniest entity that we repeatedly fall prey to: the cell. At that time, a beloved family member had undergone the surgery for a mastectomy and I was feeling powerless in the situation, so onto the map it went.
Yes! All this from ONE word! Our minds already naturally jump from one thought to another. Without editing or judging the thoughts that pop into your mind, a semantic map can lead you to a more fully realized idea and piece.
The final product of my semantic mapping, Whitewash, is to the right. This piece was eventually published in Bellevue Literary Review; a journal that publishes fiction, nonfiction and poetry about the human body, illness, health and healing. Below is a step-by-step semantic mapping guide for you to try. Do let me know about your experience utilizing it in the comments below!
I hope this message finds you well,
Semantic Mapping for Writers: A Step-by-Step Guide.
- Write and circle your “nucleus” word in the upper third or center of the page, leaving the lower section for writing.
- Let your mind, unrestricted, make connections, and cluster whatever comes to mind after you write your “nucleus” word. Avoid judging or editing yourself. Simply let go and write.
- Let the words and phrases that come to you radiate outward from the nucleus word. Connect them using lines and arrows, if you wish, and by drawing a circle around each word or phrase as it comes to you. Don’t think too long or analyze.
- Reassure yourself that “randomness” is an important first stage of the writing process.
- Allow the clustering to continue naturally. If you reach a point where no further words or thoughts come to mind, keep the flow coming by doodling a bit.
- You will know when to stop clustering when you feel an urge to write.
- Write by either ignoring the cluster or scanning it for specifics. Through clustering your mind has already perceived a pattern of meaning – so trust in the natural writing flow that the pattern will dictate.
- Don’t feel that you must use everything in your cluster. Ignore what doesn’t fit.
- Come full circle and complete your vignette by referring to what started your thought process when you first began to write. You might repeat a word or phrase or refer to a dominant thought or emotion; this will give your vignette a sense of wholeness.
- Read aloud.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent…
She heard of a world gauzed in white:
strange tableau of drag-line silk sweating
in night’s precipitation. Milky film, thin
as reflection, bristling with silver light
veiling shrub, field, farm and fence post –
an Australian woodland now a paper lung
rising & falling as the wind eased
toward the swollen Murrumbidgee River.
Blanketing the bed is a mosaic of her illness: 16 x-rays,
4 mammograms. Diagnosis: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.
A bright red circle and arrow necessary to identify
the miniscular tumor resembling a dusty orb of cobweb –
mutated stromal cells spiraling outward from the hub.
Witnesses describe the invasion:
Wolf spiders, unhoused by flood
& spinning to stay alive in our world
trellis land to limb, limb to leaf in a blizzard
of lisle – each strand a mere 2,000,000th of a meter.
8,000 human residents evacuated, leaving
the arachnids to alter what remained
of their kingdom.
A lifetime of generous phytonutrients – a lifetime craving immortality
& those quiet cells, also refusing to die, continued multiplying
unhindered. She pictures them: tiny spiders, less than 1 mm in width,
tarsal claws the color of honey and crimson, quarrying
whatever healthy issue left to plunder
in her chest sutured and gauzed in white.