Writing Rundown: Free-Writing Brainstorming for 'Peering Into an Alien Mirror'

Last week in my Literature Spotlight, I discussed the idea of science-fiction as a reflection of the time period in which it was written. For this week's Writing Rundown, let's take a look at my brainstorming process.

As I mentioned in this blog post, there are many ways to brainstorm for a project. For this one, I decided to use a technique I hardly ever use myself: free-writing. Free-writing is a great tool for projects for which you have the beginnings of a lot of ideas bouncing around in your head, but none are quite fleshed out enough for you to contemplate their connections. It generally requires another form of prewriting such as a word cloud or outline to get it into a state that helps you write the essay, but it's a great place to start.

So, as a brief recap: in freewriting, sometimes called “stream-of-consciousness” writing, you put your pen down on a blank piece of paper and just start writing – and you don't stop writing for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Jot down everything that comes to mind, trying to stay on topic but not worrying if you stray. The important thing is that the pen should never stop moving – just write down everything that comes into your head. I've inserted the results of my freewriting below, transcribed for the web:

Sci-fi is popular because it is a reflection of the time period in which it was written. By reading sci-fi from previous eras we can see into what people of the era was thinking about. Sci-fi from the cold war era is preoccupied w/nuclear annihilation, or it deals with racial tensions like TOS Star Trek. The Expanse series has a female space marine, something that would never happen in sci-fi from the 50's. Doc Smith in the 20's wrote about the womenfolk making sandwiches in zero gravity. TOS had a black woman on the bridge and an alien FO. Also deals w/social issues and questions that are at front of people's minds. Expanse talks about basic support/welfare and not everyone needing to work. Draco Tavern presents little nuggets of question and leaves them for reader to decide opinion about.

As you can see, it's a bit of a jumbled mess – the tenses are all screwed up, most of the sentences are fragments, and it jumps topics all over the place. But if you look closely, all of the concepts from my essay last week are there. I used my ten minutes of free-writing to tease out all of my thoughts about the topic, as well as get an idea of which works from the genre I wanted to use. You'll see a few things that didn't make it into the essay, like the mention of nuclear annihilation – my brain connected that in the moment, but upon re-organizing into an outline, I realized that I was taking that idea mostly from japanese animation and didn't have any specific works to cite as evidence. So I decided to leave it out.

Speaking of outlines, here's what the outline I created from that prewriting looks like:

I. Sci-Fi is a reflection of the time period in which it is written,
  A. One of its major draws is that it can highlight and discuss social issues that might be touchy to talk about in terms of the
present day
    i. Through the use of space, aliens, utopias, and other clearly fictional scenarios, good Sci-Fi can hold a mirror up to the way our current society deals with an issue by showing how their fictional society behaves about it.
   B. By reading sci-fi from previous eras we can catch a glimpse of what people of that era were thinking about – and what was an acceptable 'flight of fancy' – through the themes used and discussed.
II. Gender
   A. E. E. 'Doc' Smith's “The Skylark of Space,” written in the 1920's, included women on the spaceship, but in incredibly traditionally 'female' roles 
      i. The scene in the kitchen where they tried to make sandwiches in zero gravity
      ii. Never did the women even really try to take the initiative; they were along for the ride for the most part. The only thing they felt like they could take the initiative to do was cook for the menfolk.
   B. Star Trek TOS in the 60's
      i. Depicts a world where gender no longer matters – to humans
         a) A black woman has a bridge position, and nobody bats an eye
   C. The Expanse Series – 2012
      i. Two main characters in Caliban's War are a female space marine and a female diplomat
         a) Both in positions where they are well-respected (though they receive pushback for other reasons, but not related to being female)
         b) Both radiate power in different ways and are treated equally in terms of gender
III. Race
   A. Star Trek TOS
      i. Uhura still ran up against racial issues because it was the 60's
         a) Scene with the inter-racial kiss got pushback from their network
      ii. Displays ideas of racial tensions through the use of aliens
         a) Black-and-white aliens
         b) Alien as bridge officer
   B. Caliban's War
      i. Still displays racial tensions, but highlights the fact that they are all humans
         a) The war between the Outer Planets Alliance, Earth, and Mars is essentially an entirely human war – no aliens to speak of. 
         b) Stark differences between someone born on Mars and someone born on Earth leads to them treating each other as aliens.
IV. Socialism and other Social Issues
   A. Caliban's War
      i. Includes a scene with the female space marine and a barista
         a) Barista talks about Earth's policy of having young people work for a few years to make sure they like working before going to state-funded universities
              ~Not everyone needs to work, since the planet is so over-populated
         b) Space marine comes from Mars, where everyone has a place in the colony and a job to do
             ~Idea of not having to work is foreign to her
         c) By contrasting these two personalities, the author allows us to consider the ideas of single-payer systems like free university education and healthcare from multiple perspectives
   B. Draco Tavern
      i. Presents little vignettes that ask a question, then leaves the reader to think about their answer
         a) Butterfly aliens – what if you could choose when you died?
         b) If a human kills an alien, should he be subjected to the alien form of punishment?
      ii. Doesn't attempt to answer any of the questions, leaves you to figure it out yourself.

Now, this outline didn't start this full; this is after a few minutes of adjusting and reorganizing. I realized in creating the outline that I specifically wanted to talk about social issues reflected through the use of aliens and spaceships, so I re-organized the flow of my essay from paragraphs centered around individual works of sci-fi to paragraphs centered around types of social issues represented. In particular, the free-writing helped me realize the connection between the utopian racial ideas within the human race in TOS Star Trek and the tension between the humans and the aliens, which in turn gave me the central idea of the essay – that using aliens to represent “the other” can help throw social issues into stark relief.
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