The Power of Word Association and Constraints

The Power of Word Association and Constraints

In “Seducing Your Muse” (, I have already discussed the effectiveness of a writing prompt from a list of words (and/or categories) and I have also discussed “Timed Prompts” ( in the same section of the blog (Writing Prompts). In this note, I want to combine the two that has remarkably and repeatedly led to strong and fast first drafts (or kernels) in a matter of minutes.

First, let’s review the basic mechanics of generating a poem or piece of prose from a list of prompting words, say ten of them. The list is generally scanned, rather quickly, for connections (and hopefully the less obvious ones that lead to clichés). The word(s) will trigger a memory. Once a connection is established, the other words will fall into place as your vignette or narrative develops. From my experience, the earnest attempt to include all ten words will take at least an hour; much of that time is spent brainstorming. But a draft can be written from am hour to a couple of days. Of course, the revision process will take longer, but usually you’ll have something good to work with in that short period of time.

Now, let’s look at the same list (or a new one) and do something different. Instead of immediate word associations, dwell intently on each word “blind” to the others on the list. In an almost free-write fashion, respond to whatever that word brings to mind and write it down—other words, phrases, fragments—anything triggered by it. Do this for each word, in succession, and then look at the collective sum for associations of those responses. You might find a surprising surreal outcome, probably because of strange juxtapositions among the sequential phrases. I discuss this style in the backstory of the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project I participated in this past March 2014 ( process is no shorter, and arguably longer, to generate a working draft.

Finally, take those ten prompt words and divide them arbitrarily into two 5-word lists*. Work with only one of those lists at a time. Here’s where the fun begins. In only 5 minutes (10 at the most), write a piece (any genre) of 50-60 words. The time and spatial constraints are liberating and will prod the mind to feverishly make connections as you strive to use all five of those words. (I am going to guess that subconscious connections are more spontaneously made.) Note, when doing this long-hand (which is what I recommend), you would find that you can satisfy these requirements by striving to use one word per line (if evenly distributed). The low word count helps defray the “I can’t do it” syndrome. This is a very productive exercise.

* On the second round with the same list, I arranged them in alphabetical order to produce yet another 2 pieces.

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