Today, marks Ray Bradbury’s 100th birthday, and in his honor, I am going to share one his favorite writing exercises. This exercise, which I learned in the Ray Bradbury and Creative Storytelling class I recently completed with Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, addresses two area with which many authors struggle, writers block and writing titles. I have begun to incorporate it into my own writing practice and it has become one of my favorites as well.
On a blank sheet of paper, list nouns that pop into your head. These should be free-associated nouns that come to you from your subconscious, without thinking too hard. The only restrictions are that, A. the nouns should not be about the same subject (don’t list boat, sail, water, ocean, fish); and B, you must write “the” before each of the nouns (The Sky, The Candle; The Painting; The Chair; The Tree; The Scotch Whisky, The Vampire; etc.). Now, go through the list, choose one, and use it for both the subject—and title—of your story. That’s it. It seems simple, but it works. Here is a picture of one of my lists:
If you look at Bradbury’s catalog of stories, you will find many stories with titles that follow this format, including some of his most famous: The Lake, The Foghorn, The Crowd, The Fire Balloons, etc. It is likely that he used this technique to help him start writing his stories. Even Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 began as a story called “The Fireman.” The proof is in the pudding.
I love this technique because it’s so simple, so low pressure, and so effective. On each list I make, there may only be two or three ideas that I will eventually pursue, but by listing so many, there is less pressure to create any individual idea, which it makes it so much easier to start writing. If the idea doesn’t work, there are 20 more on the list from which I can choose. And, as an added bonus, when I do finish a story, the title is already written. I don’t have to think of a title, which is one of my least favorite parts of the writing process.
Ray Bradbury left us so many gifts in the forms of his books and stories, and this “noun exercise” is one more gift for us writers. During this, his centennial celebration, I urge you to try it. Let me know how it works for you.