In her book Writing the Natural Way, Gabriele Lusser Rico introduced the concept of “clustering” also known as “webbing,” as a creative technique to return to the playfulness and wonder of childhood storying. Traditional schooling programs our brains to write in a prescribed way that follows a sequence of events. When writing for school we write from the cognitive rational part of our brain. The creative part of the brain is often shut out of the process, which discard any emotional or sensory experience from the events in the story. This kind of writing can often feel dull and unimportant, which lead a lot of people to turn away from writing or retelling their life experiences through the written word.
Children love to create stories and hear stories. They learn how to translate themselves through the stories they create. The psychologist Renee Fuller termed “storying” as a term for what children do to try to create wholeness out of their experiences in an adult world. Our ancient ancestors also storied their daily experiences and life stories with their community around the fire. Images carved into rock or painted on rocks told the story of hunting and life in the early communities. Stories are a way for humans to connect, to have relationships and to express who they are to others.
Gabriele Lusser Rico explores how adults lose the sense of pleasure and wholeness in their writing that they had as children. As adults we trade curiosity for the mundane, delight of the new with worry for the future. Adults replace a free sensory notion of the world with a preconceived notion that has been written in a prescribed formula.
According to Gabriele, we do not lack ideas for writing, but we lack the access to them. Her clustering model allows for the creative part of the brain to be very active. The child curiosity and wonder are reignited.
To begin clustering Gabriele suggests that a single word, or a few words, are written down in the middle of the page. Then circle it. Jutting out from the initial circled word draw lines connecting to other words or phrases associated with the original word. Some words might become their own nucleus with many spokes coming out from them with connecting images or thoughts. Continue to allow the creative mind to make these connection and form patterns until it feels like you have exhausted any new ideas.
Below are some examples of words to choose from to begin your creative clustering experience. You can also place the name of a person or specific experiences you might want to explore deeper in your first circle. Include sensory experiences as a way to expand your memory and bring it to life. I choose the word prompt “things found” and wrote about my Gramp’s chair. I also provided an example below of the clustering I did first that led me to the short written piece. You can choose just to cluster or, if the story wants to be told, allow your clustered memories to take shape to form your story.
Fear, Pain, Hunger
Age, Body part’s (stomach, shoulders, feet etc…)
Myself, My mother (father, grandfather. . .), childhood memories
Letting go, Time, Dreams
Things or people Lost/found, things desired, things despise
The name of a person, a place or a time in your life, friends, enemies, person admired
Dinner table, favorite foods, places to eat
Travel, vacations, Events, situations and circumstances, concerts attended
Things said/things not said, things known and unknown
Jobs lost/jobs found
Pets you have had in your lifetime, car’s in your life
My Gramp sat in his bedroom chair twice a day, once to put his shoes on and once to take his shoes off. I don’t know where the chair came from or why it was the chair in my Gramp’s bedroom, but I remember sitting on his lap as he sat to get ready for the day and later to end his day.
The chair was a wood frame, burnt umber, with a hunt scene of horses racing across the chair in an eternal chase for the fox. A conservative block pleat wrapped around the edge of the seat and- a wood frame with line webbing criss-crossed beneath the horses and their riders. It had a barrel shape back that was softened by a cushion shaped with a larger surface for the back and two smaller sections that appeared to wrap around and hold my Gramp’s shoulders, supporting his rotund body comfortably. The chair sat lower to the ground like it was made for the purpose of putting on and taking off shoes.
I used to sit on my Gramp’s lap after he laced up his brown leather high top shoes. We sat there together in our generational union looking at pictures of people I never knew and would never know. Gramp kept a piece of corrugated cardboard wrapped around a parcel of photos tied with white string in his top dresser drawer. My Gramp would show me these small black and white photos, although they were more brown and cream colored. The photos were of people that never smiled and wore long dresses and men all in suits standing in place they just stood on a porch or what looked like a backdrop of plain cloth. Taller ones in the back and smaller ones in the front. All of them the men and woman wearing high-top leather shoes like my Gramp’s. Some of the photos were on what appeared to be a sheet of tin, the colors black and gray. Gramp always looked at them, all these people that he knew and loved and now missed, with joy as he named them and told a little story or two about a few of his family members, my ancestors.
There was a picture of my Gramp as a young man after he graduated from college in engineering. He was on a ship heading to Canada as a graduation gift from his father. I didn’t recognize him in that young skin, wool pants and matching jacket. He had what looked like reddish-brown hair and even though he didn’t smile he looked into the camera with a slight grin. I suppose he felt proud of his accomplishments and excited about his travel adventures. I loved to look at that photo, always trying to find the Gramp I knew in that tall slim body. I tried to imagine what he was like back then, a young man so full of energy and with a bright future ahead of him, sitting there on a boat alone about to embark on a journey.
I would look through each and every photo and hold onto the metal ones. I was so amazed at how they got a picture on this material and I wondered how my Gramp could know so many people that came from a time I was not to experience. He would put them all back in order and wrap the corrugated board around them for protection. He tied the white string in a coil around them, securing his memories before laying them to rest in the dresser drawer on top of his handkerchiefs. They would be tenderly lifted from their repose in the evening and the ancestral tails would be my bedtime story that lulled me sleep.
After fifty years, I have his chair again and it sits in my extra room. It had been in a basement for many years and never attended to or sat on or even noticed. I ran my fingers over the old tattered fabric with the horses and riders now faded, the back cushion missing, and the wood discolored, and I remembered my Gramp, now among the ancestors. I plan to restore this chair and maybe I will sit in it and share photos with my grandson and tell stories of my Gramp, his great- great Grandfather. But the photos will be in color now and he will see some wonderful smiles and goofy expression on the faces of our family. I will bring out the ancient parcel of photos and show them to him, but I will only remember some of their names most likely not all the details of the stories. Those stories now all live within the faded colors of the small thumb size pictures and metal sheets.