Fun with Free Association

Over the last few months I’ve become smitten with Big Bang Theory, and in particular with the character Sheldon Cooper. If you are a fan of the series you’ll be aware that Sheldon hosts a YouTube show called “Fun with Flags” which is generally not fun for his guests or his viewers. Sheldon is very obsessed with logic, facts, history and the position of expert. In many ways he is an embodiment of our left hemispheres, the part of the brain that connects the dots, creates structures, organizes, edits, and censors. The left brain is the seat of logic and our inner critic.

The right brain is a little bit more like Penny. She is disorganized, messy, insightful, spontaneous, funny, frequently drunk, but capable of solving many problems by virtue of having good instincts. Right brain thinking tends to be irrational, sensory, evocative, unconventional and complex.  What Big Bang Theory illustrates is that both skill sets are necessary for us to function. The left brain and the right brain need to cooperate to produce the best results.  We each have an inner Sheldon and an inner Penny, and what they bring to the table together is far better than what they can produce individually.

In her book, Writing the Natural Way, Gabriele Lusser Rico argues that good writing comes from a collaboration of the productive, generative, unconscious phase; followed by the conscious critical phase that edits, refines and revises what has been produced. One of the best tools for accessing the unconscious phase is called free association.


Sigmund Freud is most often credited with developing the concept of free association, although it is clear that the idea had been floating around his intellectual milieu long before he took hold of it. As a therapeutic technique an analyst would ask her patient to say the first word that comes to mind after a prompt, without allowing any thinking or reasoning to happen in between the prompt and the response.  If you were to hear the word black your response might be white, or night, or dress. The free association process taps into our personal histories, our memories, our thought patterns, and our cultural heritage. Most often our responses will fit into a general trend, but whenever they vary, it is because we are tapping into something that is uniquely our own experience. This subconscious mental place is often difficult to access, because the logical mind doesn’t like to go there (it feels very uncomfortable and irrelevant there). But this place is where great metaphors come from, where the arresting, interesting, novel and fertile ideas come from.  The game of free association requires the left brain to take a back seat.

321549648_6aecc08d0c_mMind mapping can be a written version of free association (I am over-simplifying, because there are many different kinds of mind-mapping techniques). The prompt or anchor word is written in the centre of the page and then whatever words are associated with it are jotted down around it. If “free association” is the anchor, other words that pop up might include Freud, politics, Bugs Bunny, Rorschach, butterflies, colour, crazed lunatic, beard, money, green, envy and so on.  Once you have a dozen words or so you have a plethora of images or ideas to play with. This technique really is all about play, letting go of inhibition, and having fun.  Many poets are experts at free-associating and the technique was very popular with HD (who studied with Freud), Marianne Moore, TS Eliot, and numerous other modernist writers.

Depending on the work at hand, you may want to incorporate the anchor word into your topic, or you may take off in an entirely different direction. If I wanted to pull  threads from the list above I could write a paragraph about psychiatry, pirates, anxiety, or poverty—the possibilities are endless. Next time you are stuck on a writing task or trolling about for an article idea try a little free-association or mind-mapping. You will be amazed at the places you go.4968682489_df48a63a69_m


Until next time,


Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, December 1. We hope you can join us. We also have gift certificates available just in time for Christmas.

If you enjoyed reading this post, why not subscribe to our blog? Just enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top right hand corner of this page.  The names of new subscribers in November will be entered in a draw to win a copy of Brenda Ueland’s classic book, “If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.” Our October winner was Isobel Warren who received a copy of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

Big Bang Theory
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Mind map
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