Finding Topics by Free Writing or Brainstorming

Free writing simply means getting ideas on paper as fast as you can. The trick is to let feelings and ideas pour forth. Jot down anything that occurs to you, without worrying about order or even making much sense. Keep going; to pause is to risk getting stuck, like a car in snow. Move the pencil, writing whatever pops into mind. Don't be afraid of making mistakes or of saying something foolish. You probably will. So what? You're writing for yourself, and if you won't risk saying something foolish, you're not likely to say anything wise.

Here's how you might explore the different attitudes of the 1990s and the 1960s on sex, love, and marriage:

Sex—less permissive today. Herpes? AIDS? More conservative morality? Just a generational reaction, a swing of the pendulum?

Cooler about love and marriage. Less romantic. Harry and Ellen. Maybe feminism. If they have a chance at careers—prestige, are harder-headed about marriage. Maybe more demanding about men, less willing to accept them on men's own terms. Maybe men leery of modem women.

Economics? It's a tougher world. Fewer good jobs, more competition. Everything cars, housing, kids.

Materialism. Young people seem more materialistic. Concerned with money, worldly success. They want to make it. Be millionaires by thirty. Admiration for winners, fear being losers.

Less idealistic? Do disillusion and cynicism push toward self-interest? But people in their twenties today aren't really cynical and disillusioned. Never been idealistic enough. They don't have to learn the lesson of The Big Chill.They grew up in it.

Such jottings are not finely reasoned judgments. Many of the ideas are speculative and hastily generalized; some are probably biased. Still, topics have surfaced. The next task would be to look at them closely, rejecting some, choosing others; and then to gather information.

Thus both methods of exploration have led to topics, the rudiments of an essay. But notice that while they cover the same general subject, they have led in rather different directions. The analytical questions have stressed nature of the changes in attitude; the free writing has stressed reasons for the changes.

These different emphases were not planned. They just happened. And that suggests an important fact: it is profitable to use both methods to explore for topics. Questions have the advantage of focusing your attention. But a focused attention sees only what is under the lens, and that is a severe limitation. Brainstorming can be wasteful, leading in too many directions. But it is more likely to extend a subject in unforeseen ways and to make unexpected connections.

The two methods, then, are complementary, not antithetical. Temperamentally, you may prefer one or the other. But it's wise to try both.

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