I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half after midnight, with a pad, a pen, and a list to be made. Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting way up there in the attic shadows.
If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page… your Thing at the top of the stairs in your own private night… May well come down.
— Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury
In his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury goes into detail about his method of list-making as a means of creative thinking. I’ve talked about this technique before, but I don’t think it can be talked about too much. Today, I’ll talk about what it’s like, in practice, to use this method, at least what it’s like for me.
Remember in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Albus Dumbledore plucked the memories from his brain with his wand, and swirled them around in a magical device called a Pensieve? Sure you do. Conjuring the Nouns is a bit like that. It is equal parts free word association and Rorschach test. As you take the random thoughts out of your head, and put them on paper, you can step back and start to see the shape of the story you’re going to write.
Bradbury’s method seems to be less focused (that is, more general, not that it’s without purpose) than mine. I tend to write nouns focused on the project I’m going to work on, whereas Bradbury seemed to just write whatever was in his mind, and have those nouns suggest stories to write. For instance, he wrote the noun THE SKELETON, and later wrote a story about a man who was horrified to learn that a skeleton — this emblem of the gothic horror story — lived inside his own body.
Why nouns? Because they are short. They don’t allow you to elaborate on a story. They suggest rather than explain. And, because they are concrete. They are things, and things can be put into stories. By Conjuring the Nouns, you’ll have created a great big heap of compost from which to grow the story. Most people only get enough compost after they’ve finished the first draft, so you’ll be one step ahead. Granted, your first draft is still going to be for the compost heap, but at least this way, you’ll already have the story taking shape in your mind before you write sentence number one.
I’d recommend this technique any time you’re going to write something, anytime you don’t know what to write, and any time you’re stuck in the middle of writing something. Sometimes your thoughts, like Dumbledore’s memories, get backed up, and you can only let them flow correctly again by pulling out the cork from your skull and letting the ideas flood out. All of this said, the only thing left to do, is to do it.
THE BIRCH. THE BENCH. THE GRASS. THE HEADSTONE. THE NAME. THE DATE. THE CROW. THE WIND. THE COLD. THE COAT. THE CHILL. THE ROSE. THE TEAR. THE WALK HOME. THE TWILIGHT. THE SKY. THE STARS. THE CLOUDS. THE MOON. THE FACE. THE SKULL. THE GRIN. THE HEARTBEAT. THE SWEAT. THE SPECTER. THE WHISPER. THE SONG. THE PATH. THE BRIDGE. THE CEMETERY. THE HOUSE. THE HEARTH. THE KNOCK.
Did these concrete details suggest a story to you? Now you try. Write your own list and share in the comments.