In my favorite writing book, What It Is, Lynda Barry explains how to make a “Word Bag”—a word bag is basically just a bunch of nouns that you write down and stuff in a bag and pull out randomly when you need to begin a piece of writing and you’re not sure where to start. (Here’s Lynda, taking you through the exercise.)
Turns out, this is pretty much how Ray Bradbury got started, too.
In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this?
Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.
With very few exceptions, I don’t dream. Or perhaps it’s that I don’t remember my dreams. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a plague of insomnia befalls the central town of Macondo, forcing everyone to carry on their lives wearied, nearly broken, and suffering from the decay of their memory. After dreaming vividly and often as a child, it’s only with my recent conversion to a Romantic point of view that I’ve come to miss the immersive power of dreaming.
If genius is just childhood recaptured at will, as Charles Baudelaire claimed, then Ray Bradbury, now off exploring his tree-fort daydream galaxy firsthand, was indeed a genius. His fiction and I were inseparable friends when I was a child, and the unabashedly sentimental wonder of his worldview sang to me in ways that other art couldn’t. I suppose it sowed the seeds for where I’m at today, and it certainly explains why Neil Gaiman was such a natural choice for me as an adult. The genius of Bradbury’s fiction—Gaiman’s, too—is that it creates dreams for the dreamless. In our common tendency to wonder and poke at the edges of what seems possible, it is a triumph of the imagination. When everything seems to be going wrong, it’s a comfort to envelop ourselves in those dreams Bradbury wrote longhand in dandelion wine.
It’s only with Bradbury’s passing and my long thinking about it that I’ve found a way to explain why Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is my favorite album. It’s meaningful to me, of course, but then so are lots of records. It found me at a key time in my life, but so did lots of records. The unique power of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, inspired by a girl who received a diary for her birthday seventy years ago today, is how uncompromisingly it questions that hazy Bradburian wonder and reaffirms in the face of two desecrating poisons: everyday human frailty and the undistilled evil of National Socialism.
And I? thought Hollis. What can I do? Is there anything I can do now to make up for a terrible and empty life? If only I could do one good thing to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me! But there’s no one here but myself, and how can you do good all alone? You can’t. Tomorrow night I’ll hit the Earth’s atmosphere.
I’ll burn, he thought, and be scattered in ashes all over the continental lands. I’ll be put to use. Just a little bit, but ashes are ashes and they’ll add to the land.
He fell swiftly, like a bullet, like a pebble, like an iron weight, objective, objective all of the time now, not sad or happy or anything, but only wishing he could do a good thing now that everything was gone, a good thing for just himself to know about.
When I hit the atmosphere, I’ll burn like a meteor.
“I wonder,” he said, “if anyone’ll see me?”
The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed. “Look, Mom, look! A falling star!”
The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois. “Make a wish,” said his mother. “Make a wish.”
— Ray Bradbury. (via neil-gaiman)
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