Chanel M. Sutherland

July 3, 2024

My Unconventional Writing Process: Unstructured Play

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I’ve never been the kind of writer who adheres to a “process.” Strict structures and rigid routines tend to feel more like constraints than guides, stifling the very creativity they are supposed to foster. Instead, I prefer to write when the inspiration strikes, letting the words flow however they want. For me, writing has always been about freedom, spontaneity, and the joy of creation.

But lately, I’ve been reflecting on my approach and realizing that this seeming lack of process is, perhaps, a process in itself. It’s an organic, fluid method that works uniquely for me. Given the number of times I’ve been asked about my process, I thought it might be interesting to share some insights into how I write. This blog series, “My Unconventional Writing Process,” will provide a glimpse into my approach, starting with the heart of my creative journey: unstructured play.

The process I will be sharing is based on everything I will do while writing my next project—a full-length novel. My first. This journey is as new to me as it might be to you, and I hope that by sharing my experiences, challenges, and discoveries, I can offer some inspiration and insight into the beautiful chaos that is the creative process.

Unstructured Play: The Heartbeat of My Writing Process

The journey of writing for me begins with unstructured play. I first learned about unstructured play from Chelene Knight while taking the Thrive Coaching Program offered by Breathing Space Creative. This concept transformed my approach to writing, teaching me to embrace the freedom to let my imagination roam without constraints or judgments. Unstructured play has become the heartbeat of my creative process, a stage dedicated to exploration and discovery. It’s where the magic truly begins.

Thrive Program: A Catalyst for Creativity

I first learned about this process while participating in the Thrive Coaching Program with Breathing Space Creatives. This program taught me the importance of giving myself permission to play and to let go of the pressure to create something perfect from the start. Before joining Breathing Space Creatives, I was a serial editor, constantly breaking the cardinal rule of writing: do not edit while you write. I couldn’t stop myself. Learning to let go and embrace play was a transformative experience that reshaped how I approach writing.

The Drawing Notebook: My Creative Playground

My trusty drawing notebook is my constant companion during the unstructured play phase. It’s a space where I can jot down ideas, doodle characters, sketch settings, plot an entire novel (I love using color pens for all the different plot elements) and scribble snippets of dialogue. There’s something liberating about seeing thoughts take shape on paper. This notebook becomes a visual diary of my creative journey, capturing the raw, unfiltered essence of my ideas.

Word Clouds and Mind Maps: Visualizing Themes

During this phase, I often create word clouds and mind maps to visualize key themes and concepts. These tools help me see connections between ideas that I might not have noticed otherwise. They serve as effective brainstorming techniques, allowing me to explore different angles and possibilities for my story. For example, in my current project, I am exploring the moment when history transforms into myth. Word clouds enable me to experiment with various themes and pinpoint moments within the broader novel where these transformations can or should occur.

Mapping the Setting: Walking Plots and Physical Maps

Creating a physical map of the setting is another crucial element of my unstructured play. In my current project, the setting plays a key role, almost like a main character. I love to plot out the geography of my story’s world, marking where characters might go or avoid. This helps me visualize the physical space in which my characters will interact and evolve. Walking plots on this map give me a sense of the characters’ movements and interactions within the setting. By treating the setting with as much importance as the characters, I ensure that it shapes and influences the narrative in significant ways.

The Arc: Plotting Key Points with a Creative Twist

One of my favorite parts of the unstructured play process is creating an arc—a real, tangible arc. I recently used a white plate to draw this, much to the dismay of my partner who discovered blue permanent marker on the edge of our “good plate.” This arc isn’t a traditional outline; it’s more of a skeleton of an outline. It allows me to plot key points that need to occur in the story without feeling restricted by a rigid structure.

For instance, in my current project, physical reflection is a key element. I need to ensure that characters interact with something that allows them to see themselves in a distorted way. This arc helps me keep track of such essential elements while maintaining the freedom to let the story evolve organically.

Embracing the Unstructured

Unstructured play is the foundation of my writing process. It’s a time to embrace creativity without boundaries, to explore and experiment without fear of failure. This phase sets the stage for everything that follows, providing a wealth of ideas and inspiration to draw from as I move into the more structured stages of writing.

By allowing myself the freedom to play and explore, I open up new pathways for creativity and innovation. This approach helps me uncover unexpected connections and themes, enriching my stories in ways I couldn’t have planned. As I transition from this exploratory phase to more structured writing, I carry forward the energy and inspiration generated during unstructured play. This momentum fuels my creativity, ensuring that my writing remains vibrant and dynamic.

Moreover, unstructured play is invaluable when I feel stuck and need to push past a creative block. It offers an alternative way of writing when the words aren’t flowing as well as I’d like, allowing me to keep the spring of inspiration from running dry. By engaging in unstructured play, I can bypass the frustration of writer’s block and keep my creative juices flowing, making it an indispensable part of my creative toolkit.

About the Author

Chanel M. Sutherland is the winner of the 2021 CBC Nonfiction prize and the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize. In addition, she was awarded the 2022 Mairuth Sarsfield Mentorship, longlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Max Margles Fiction Prize. Chanel was also included on the CBC Books 30 Writers to Watch list for 2022.

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