Friday, August 10, 2007

My mind on my mapping and my mapping on my mind

I post this in hopes that other artists might share some of their experiments with visualizing and constructing plays.

It may seem self-evident, but the way I visualize play structure limits the form of the final product. So if I think of a play in the climatic arc, its gonna come out that way.

My usual tools are outlining and journaling. In my ongoing attempt to break my own habits, I've been searching for different ways to visualize plays. One of my inspirations has been Suzan-Lori Parks, who in the essays found in the collection The America Play: and Other Works uses sketches and quasi-mathemetical formulas to represent ideas about her work. Following is an account of my introduction to mind mapping, and a partial review of the FreeMind software.

Mind mapping is defined on Wikipedia as "... a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea." The radial idea - and its associated lack of hierarchy or rising action interested me immediately.

Some quick product searching, and I settled on the freeware FreeMind. Why? It was free. The download and install took moments - no problem there. The documentation is in English, but written by a non-native speaker - so the syntax is a bit challenging.

This post will make the most sense if you download the pdf of the map I ended up creating here. This static pdf does one major disservice: part of the fun of the mind-mapping software is the ability to collapse and expand each branch of the map. You can see some of the nodes collapsed here.

Before trying to use the program, I took a moment to glance through the help file. The help file itself is a mind-map, but at this point it just seems a fancy way to re-purpose an outline.

Then I find myself staring at a blank page. That's a familiar feeling. I start out by putting my working title "mining play" in the central node. I experiment by adding child nodes to the central node, and then waste about 15 minutes trying to see if you can control which side of the nodes the connecting lines connect to - you can't.

My first step is to add each of the characters to their node around the central circle "mining play." This doesn't seem to get me anywhere, and I find myself wondering what I'm mapping. For example, Caleb is my main character. As such, should his father be a child node of Caleb? Or should Caleb be a child of his father? In other words, am I mapping familial relationships or character relationships?

I then switch gears and start thinking of the mind map as a constellation of all my random ideas about the play.

The feel of entering data into the program takes some getting used to. Because clicking expands/collapses the nodes, its much more efficient to use the arrow keys to navigate around the map. The Insert key is a great shortcut to enter child nodes. After about 45 minutes the keyboarding is practically intuitive.

I encountered two major glitches. One, the program froze after executing a series of undoes . I had to restart the program and lost several edits. Save often. Two, the window to create longer text nodes has white text on a white background as a default. A work around is to enable Rich Formatting on that attribute.

I started including the events that I know I want in the play. As I was laying the events, I was reminded that each event presupposes other events. For example, I know that I want a moment where the pay raise offered to the miners is offset by the prices being raised at the company store. For that to work, I'm going to need to establish the rules of the company store, the payment in scrip and at least one scene at the store establishing the normal base line. The branching ability of the program certainly can handle the information, but I realize I want to create multiple connections.

Since I'm putting all the ideas in one representation, I want to be able to link events to thematic ideas and to represent the multiple meanings a single event might have. My dream is a program where I can select one element of the play --an event, an image, a theme-- and see the threads that trail off to all the other interconnected moments. What I love about playwriting is the density of it, and I often have a desire to represent that physcially - almost as if the play was a network. There are "graphical links" in the program (those are the big swooping lines on the PDF). But its pretty clear that I've hit the limit of the software as the map becomes cluttered and any clarity is lost.

Once I got rolling, putting all my budding ideas about the play into one graphic representation was fun. Even though mind mapping purports to avoid the "implicit prioritization that comes from hierarchy or sequential arrangements," I found that in trying to decide which branch a particular idea went into, I was still trying to organize my play in an outline style. In other words, even though the external representation was different, I was still relying internally on my habits and translating that to the mind map.

I think that my approach to the experiment may have locked in that behavior: I was trying to represent information of a play I was already developing. I think next time I'll try to use the software as a brainstorming tool. I often get vague images or associations that I think might be a play. The next time one of those floats through my mind, I'll explore it with mind mapping.


David Moore said...


Always the technology geek, thinking that if I just find the right tool I'll suddenly become so much more organized and effective in my work -- isn't that the promise of science? -- I, too, downloaded that same software. And came to many of the same conclusions.

Good to know that "it's not just me."

Have a great time in S.F.

Aaron Carter said...

Excellent, good to know that there are other tech geeks out there in theater land.

Did you try the Concept Mapping software CMap? Also very interesting. I was going to do a separate post about that in the future, but it looks like this topic is of interest to a subset of folks.

Tony said...

I have a bit of a tech geek streak in me, but when I've tried to map out something I'm writing, I always end up mapping more than writing, and losing a lot of post-its. I might just try this here, software.

David Moore said...

OK, so I tried the CMap concept-mapping software. More accurately, I went to the website and read a lot of the background info -- which is highly technical (as you probably already know) and very much learning-focused (as opposed to creativity-focused).

So, instead of downloading the software and trying to learn how to work with it, I thought I'd try a pen-and-paper experiment.

Which lasted ten minutes, because I got a great idea out of the process and had to run back to my laptop to start working on the play again.

I guess that means it worked!