The Spark File: a writer’s tool that worked

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The most interesting part of the experience is the feeling of reading through your own words describing new ideas as they are occurring to you for the first time. In a funny way, it feels like you are brainstorming with past versions of yourself

Stephen Johnson

Have you ever read about a technique that you believe may help you with your creative process or strengthen your understanding of your craft? Many of us do this to further our development in whatever artistic endeavour we are passionate about. If your experience is similar to mine, you may find that you become momentarily excited about an idea but never actually follow through with the practical application of these strategies.

At times, I have wondered if this may be just a sophisticated form of procrastination.

But what happens when you do follow through and commit to trying an idea for a period of time. And then discover that it makes the mark and has real impact.

As a writer, I had been jotting down ideas in random notebooks, my daily journal and sometimes in a notes file on my phone. This has always seemed disjointed and I rarely, if ever have taken much time to review those ideas with more than passing interest. Recently, I came across an article about something called a Spark file. More than casually curious, I then took the time to view a Ted talk by Stephen Johnson, creator of this strategy that he calls the Spark File.

Simplistic in nature, a spark file is simply a chronological record of ideas, thoughts, or creative hunches which excite in some way. Intended for those times when it occurs to you that maybe you should write this down, or research to learn more, or…but never do and those marvellous ideas just float away into some place that must be creative purgatory.

There are likely numerous tools one could use to collect the ideas that in the moment feel important and meaningful but you may not have to time to really sit down and develop them. I chose to use a Google doc because it is easy to use on all of my devices. Working in this way has produced a lengthy document that is really a series of snippets of writing that may be “hunches” or ideas not fully formed but otherwise would be easily forgotten about.

This document contains possible titles for stories I have written, ideas about things to research, edits to consider for pieces already in progress, character sketches, plot devices, questions about point of view, etc. Realistically it serves as a quick snapshot inside my head that tells me a little bit about my writing process, the pieces that I am working on or the dreams I have that I visualize writing about in the future.

The key to making this work is to periodically take the time to review all of what has been entered in your Spark file, take a step back and then begin the search to make associations, find patterns and relationships between the random pieces of writing you have collected over time. I was surprised by the way this actually worked for me. I gleaned enough about my writing process to finish edits on pieces that had stalled and were suspended in limbo.

I suppose the thing I was most surprised by was the manner in which this simplistic tool provided some insight into some aspects of my work as well as the fluid and organic nature of creativity. It seems like more than happenstance that using a loosely structured way to capture some of my thoughts and ideas actually paid off with some results that I am pleased with.

Our creative brains are always available to us and if we can structure a way to capture those ideas that captivate us and contribute in a meaningful way to our creativity, it serves as a roadmap to help prevent getting lost along this journey. And it is always nice when something we read about, and then invest time and effort in, has a real world practical application.

Stay healthy and safe!

2 thoughts on “The Spark File: a writer’s tool that worked

  1. I wouldn’t call mine a spark file, but I have kept a writing journal, one where I write down interesting passages or new words I’ve learned. It really does help. Great post exploring this. Thanks for sharing!


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