Mapping the Creative Self: On Mind Maps, Play, and Broccoli

This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.


Mapping the Creative Self: On Mind Maps, Play, and Broccoli

Recently I drew a map of my thoughts. It was a Monday afternoon; I was sitting outside. I started scribbling words and pictures, circling them, connecting them. Entries included: solitude, loneliness, grief, prayer, salt, Quakerism, politics, Jane Austen, “the sky right now,” and broccoli.

Do you know about mind-mapping? A book called (I am not kidding) How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci* taught me how to mind-map when I was maybe 14, and I’ve returned to the practice many times since, shifting the exact technique to suit my needs. 

Occasionally I use it to think through a problem or an important choice, but that’s not a fun use, it’s a productivity-related use, and productivity is a pursuit I mostly avoid. 

I’m told—constantly, by people or corporations who are trying to sell me aids to both—that productivity and creativity can play nice. I’m also told this by intelligent folks whose enormously productive creative output I enjoy—like Craig Mod, and Nicole Dieker

But if I’ve learned anything useful about my own creativity, it’s that it doesn’t like to be scheduled or timed or optimized. It will produce under those conditions, but it prefers—and tends to make better art on—its own terms. I’ve also learned that trying to negotiate those terms leads, more often than not, to a tangled pile of emotional exhaustion, missed sunrises, and tears.

So—I use mind-maps not as a productivity tool, but as a way to preserve and explore a moment in time. Maybe for later use in a poem or essay; maybe because my brain won’t stop spinning and I need to dump everything out to get a good look at it. Maybe as a snapshot for comparison with earlier snapshots, so I can see the way my curiosities and resonances, my reading and my thinking and my worrying, change and connect from from moment to moment.

It’s been said enough times that I don’t know who said it: all artists have a few primary themes they return to, again and again. Mapping creates a visual record of my themes: what’s stuck around, what’s refined or shifted, what’s resolved. This kind of record makes a fine place to begin—or a fine yardstick to revise—a piece of art. 

I also take notes during lectures/interviews/author conversations (like the online events Point Reyes Books and Emergence Magazine have been holding throughout the pandemic), and during those long and intense idea conversations you sometimes have with friends. These notes tend to take a mind-map shape. They’re messier, less considered, less illustrated than the free-write sort. I keep them jammed together in a tiny notebook, to see how they speak to each other. (The Florilegia Project continues to inspire.**)

Sometime I make maps for no particular reason—for play. In 2018-2019, I was very into seasonal mapping. At each quarter and cross-quarter day (Samhain, the solstices, etc), I would map the moon phase, the hours of daylight, the flowers in bloom and birds in action, dominant landscape colors, phases of tree bark, my own seasonal traditions.*** I have one of these maps for each of the eight seasonal turns. I never expected to put them to this use, of course, but here we are in this Covidtide of never traveling—and my maps have become bridges to beautiful memory, and consolations when I miss my places and people.

There’s something playful in the format of the mind map itself, maybe because it’s not my usual type of creative endeavor. My various maps are drawings, not prose or poetry. They have words all over them, mostly because I’m not technically gifted or skilled at illlustration. But those words are fragmentary, directionally wayward on the page, and their context is deconstructed. Sometimes I don’t remember what I meant by them at the time. (“Salt?” No idea.) The result, at least at the time, often matters less to me than the doing. I’m not invested in an outcome. I’m exploring.

And sometimes play is a type of problem-solving, just for fun: I enjoy the feeling of wrangling a random and fleeting moment onto a static page. 

I like to imagine mixing all of my maps together, into one very large book. It starts out looking quite normally book-like, but then pages unfold backwards and upwards and accordian-style, until what I have is an illustrated imagining of my own brain over a period of years. 

In fact, there’s interesting software that does something like this, brought to my attention by Lucy Bellwood, the kind of friend with whom I can have those aforementioned long and intense idea conversations. Lucy’s brain—in conversation, or on a screen as a bunch of connected nodes—is a fascinating place to explore.

I enjoy a useful and boundaried piece of tech, but my get-paid daily life under capitalism necessitates too much time on the internet already, so I’m keeping my own brain maps in paper form. 

Besides, I love hand-writing things. It’s something about the slowness, the physical texture and colors, the way I’m not choosing a typeface but writing in a hand that no one can standardize, the direct line from my mind to this piece of exploratory art it represents.

A couple of months ago, before the quick Monday map, I sat down with a larger page and mapped my pre-occupations, sorted (by shape of outline) into Curiosities & Experiments, Passions & Committments, Resonant Work, Places, and Worries. 

Doing this reminded me of some things I wanted to think about in essay form. You’ve seen some of the fruit of that, turned into previous entries in this column

As I’m looking at it right now, it’s reminding me of some worries that haven’t changed, but that I have some new ideas about addressing. This map is nudging me, from way back in October: it’s time to take action. 

It’s also, from the entry “gardening” (an Experiment), sub-entry “broccoli” (again!), reminding me to get outside and bring in the harvest.**** Literally, this time. 


Deep pink bougainvillea on a white board fence

*I still have the “think like da Vinci” book, I’ve read it more than once, and there was a period where I worked very seriously through most of the exercises. (Probably the same period I learned to mind-map; that’s at least one of the exercises.) The title maybe hasn’t aged well out of 1996, but I hereby profess to you my earnest and unironic appreciation for this book. I should probably read it again to see if I still also love it and/or find it useful.

** “Florilegia is a practice of reading and pondering, of conversing with literature by pulling out the phrases that “sparkle,” removing them from their original context into a new one. Fresh meaning may be discovered in this aggregation of sparklets, their conversation with each other. In new context they may generate new ideas, create questions or beauties or conundrums.” Source: 
https://pdxpersky.com/the-florilegia-project/

***I believe I got the idea for seasonal maps from Sharon Blackie, who thinks and teaches about modern myth and its intersection with ecology.

****Yes! It’s January! The broccoli plants I put in as starts in July are still going. 

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