ray bradbury’s lists for creative writing

Ray Bradbury suggests in Zen and the Art of Writing, to let a writer’s mind list “random” words (he listed nouns) to help fuel their imagination. From the list, he suggests one might glean insight into where your passions lie and where your next story might be hidden. He writes,

These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

The lists ran something like this:

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Brain Pickings even wrote a great article about Bradbury’s list-making and how it fosters creativity.

While easing back into writing from the crazy land that has been my life for the last six months, my girlfriend suggested I read Bradbury’s book and within the first few pages, he outlines this technique. I decided to take a break and try it out myself (adding verbs, adjective, and other phrases beyond just nouns). It’s supposed to be off-the-cuff, word association style, with little to no thought so your subconscious can run with it, so here we go.

my bradbury list (7/16/19)

  • The Coatroom
  • Long Fingers
  • The Centipede
  • Over the River
  • Where it Dies
  • Lightbulbs
  • The Overcoat
  • The Back Forty
  • Meadowgrounds
  • Lockland Street
  • Back Alley
  • The Bar
  • Floorboards
  • The Windowpane
  • Out the Window
  • The Cooler
  • Cut and Dry
  • The Medicine Man
  • Devine Intervention
  • Roanoke
  • The Key
  • The Curtain
  • Chimes at Night
  • Cochlear
  • Seaglass
  • The Dunes
  • The Reef
  • The Storm
  • The Mizzenmast
  • The Attic
  • Box
  • Tape and Matches
  • The Red Dawn
  • The Sickness
  • The Sewers
  • A Wristwatch
  • Beyond the Fence
  • Tall Grasses
  • Fungi
  • Crying
  • The Foxfire
  • Golden Garbage
  • Up and Away
  • Digging
  • Button Holes
  • The Moon
  • The Old Woman
  • Peach Pit
  • The Rats
  • The Copper Fish
  • Garden Growth
  • The Hatchery
  • Under the Skin
  • The Example
  • The Test
  • The Croaker
  • Intubate
  • Landslide
  • Presque Isle
  • Lake on Fire
  • Chitter
  • Cat Trap
  • Warm Milk
  • The Oakley Farm
  • Behind the Barn
  • Milk Can
  • Blacksnake
  • Cattail
  • Black Fingers
  • Wrought Iron
  • Firestick
  • The Drive
  • The Bush Feast
  • Malfeasance
  • Tuberculosis

I think I can already feel the stories locked in there.

That list contains the summers I spent on my grandparent’s farm, as well as pieces of my childhood, crossing rivers and sneaking through my neighbor’s fields. My penchant for the dark and macabre snuck in there, as did a little of my love for William S. Burrows. 

That’s a pretty handy list of prompts right there since they all mean something to me. I should have done this a while ago. 

Thanks, Ray Bradbury. That was insightful.

If you enjoy my writing, please consider dropping me a comment here or, if applicable, on AO3 or by supporting my hot beverage habit on Ko-fi. Thank you!

—joanielspeak

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